Old West Towns: Real or Myth?

Shops and businesses on the streets away from the center of town were laid out willy-nilly; some with entries facing alleyways. Boarding houses and private homes were seemingly dropped at random, as if tossed like dice from a gambler’s hand. –from my WIP, Stop the Wedding (book #1 Shotgun Brides)

I’m working on a new 3-book series that takes place in the fictional town of Haywire, Texas.   Before I could begin writing, it was necessary to map out my town.  Fans of western movies might think that’s a bit strange.  When a town is only one street wide and a block long, what’s to map out?  Well, for one thing, western movie sets are generally much smaller than a real town ever was, and less spread out.

Gold Hills, Nevada

The town in my book was built prior to the Civil War.  That’s important to know, because towns founded before the war generally sprang-up along wandering cow paths.   If you ever got lost in parts of Boston, as I once did, you’d know how confusing such towns can be.

Fortunately, after the war, town founders hired surveyors to plat grids oriented to railroad specifications. This practice came too late to help the poor residents of Haywire—or my hero who gets lost while chasing a bad guy through town.

Since business taxes in the Old West were calculated on width, shops and saloons were built long and narrow. What was generally called Outhouse Alley ran behind the buildings, parallel to the main thoroughfare.

Some buildings did double-duty. Schools often shared space with the Oddfellows or Masons, and shopkeepers lived over shops.

My town’s main street is T-shaped which runs into the railroad.  On the other end of Main, the town is split in two by a hundred-foot wide cross street.  A street like this was known in many western towns as the Dead Line, the purpose of which was to separate moral businesses from those beyond the pale.

Dead Line streets were wide enough so that anyone who accidentally ventured into the wrong side of town, occupied by saloons, bordellos and in Haywire’s case, the barbershop, could easily turn horse and wagon around.  Thus delicate constitutions were saved and reputations left intact.

Typically, the bank would be built next to the sheriff or marshal’s office, which explains why bank robberies in the Old West were rare. Only the most daring outlaw would attempt a bank robbery. It was much easier to rob stages—and a whole lot healthier.

Movies do get some things right. For example, buildings in many towns were mostly wood with false fronts.  These fake facades were added to make hastily-built buildings look more impressive and provide a place for signage.  Some towns, especially in the south-west where few trees could be found, were built mostly from adobe.

Speaking of movies, what western would be complete without having the hero barge through a saloon’s bat-wing doors? In reality, not every saloon had such doors. In some parts of the country, it was too cold or windy and too much dust would blow inside. Saloons that did have café doors also had standard doors that could be shut and locked when necessary.  A tour guide at Universal Studios explained that movie sets had saloon doors of different sizes: an extra-large one to make the heroine appear small and demure, and an extra-small door to make the hero appear taller and more imposing.

Another thing that frontier towns had that you won’t see in most western movies is a sign telling visitors to check their guns.  Now that’s one area where Hollywood and Haywire can agree.

Have you ever visited a western ghost town or movie lot?


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26 thoughts on “Old West Towns: Real or Myth?”

  1. Lots of interesting information. Thank you! The old west towns I saw that first come to mind are Deadwood, S.D. (Wild Bill Hickock), Durango, Co., and Fort Smith, Ark. (Hangin’ Judge Parker).

    As for Fort Smith:
    “Judge Isaac Parker often called the “Hanging Judge,”. . . ruled over the lawless land of Indian Territory in the late 1800s [after the Civil War]. In 1875, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) was populated by cattle and horse thieves, whiskey peddlers, and bandits who sought refuge in the untamed territory that was free of a “White Man’s Court.” The only court with jurisdiction over Indian Territory was the U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas located in Fort Smith, Arkansas, which was situated on the border of Western Arkansas and Indian Territory.”

    “Parker arrived in Fort Smith on May 4, 1875. At the age of 36, Judge Parker was the youngest Federal judge in the West. Holding court for the first time on May 10, 1875, eight men were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Judge Parker held court six days a week, often up to ten hours each day and tried 91 defendants in his first eight weeks on the bench. In that first summer, eighteen persons came before him charged with murder and 15 were convicted. Eight of them were sentenced to die on the gallows on September 3, 1875.”

    • Hi Eliza, thank you for sharing. I’ve visited those three towns, too. I remember visiting Judge Parker’s courthouse.

      That Judge Parker was something, all right. Unfortunately, his “hanging judge” moniker overshadowed his real contributions to the justice system which included rehabilitating offenders and advocating Indian rights.

      • I sure remember visiting the courthouse too. That’s where my great grandpa and five or so other neighbors testified on behalf of Sam and Belle Starr that they did not steal a horse! The Starrs were found guilty anyway. Sam Starr was a Cherokee who was a friend of the Youngers and the Jameses, and they lived on what became known as Younger’s Bend. My great grandpa lived slightly down river from them. I wish I could show you a picture of him since he sort of looks like an outlaw maybe–especially since people didn’t smile in pictures in those days and he’s in period clothes, vest and all–but all the good testimonials he had in his life say otherwise.

  2. Yes, I have visited a ghost town. When I lived in California, my dad took my mom and I to Rosamond which was a gold mine ghost town. They were having a chili cookoff with lots of celebrity judges. My favorite part was walking through the town and encountering actor Ben Johnson. I asked to take his picture but he would only do it if I would pose with him. He was so very nice. Rory Calhoun was also there. I was more enthralled with the old town, than I was with the entertainers.

    I would love to be entered to win your book.

    Cindy W.
    countrybear52 AT yahoo DOT com

    • Hi Cindy, I’ve never been to Rosamond. I’ll have to put that on my list. That’s neat that you met those two actors. Rory Calhoun lived in my old hometown of Burbank. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I did visit Deadwood, but never a ghost town. I would love to though.
    debby236 at gmail dot com

  4. Love this. I was just talking about this with a friend – we live in the Texas Hill Country – north of San Antonio. For such a big city the layout is crazy! Rumor has it the cattle followed the old deer trails around the river and that’s how the roads were layout – no one thought to reroute the old trails. LOL so easy to get lost downtown.

    • Hi Janine, yes, it’s fun to visit a movie lot. My husband worked at Paramount and I was amazed at the magic they could create. I once watched them turn a parking lot into a lake.

  5. What a wonderful post, Margaret! Two of my recents were set in Leadville, Colorado and Truckee California, and I was so grateful for real-life old maps. Exactly as you said, they weren’t just one streeters. I have visited the set of Dr. Quinn and it’s a fun place, but I think the nearest I’ve gotten so far to a ghost town is Holcomb Valley in Big Bear, California. Nothing remains but the trail map tells you with sketches where things were in the gold-mining days. Awesome info today and best wishes on the new series! xoxox

  6. I have not visited a ghost town or movie lot, but it would be truly interesting to see… imagine what it was like long ago…

  7. Nope never had a chance to visit either a movie lot or a ghost town though I did get to see a movie made.

    • Firestarter 2 rekindled. The city ok the set being set on fire but never imagine it would catch wild grass on fire too. Lets just say the whole fire departments were there till they were done filming. NO damage to anything else. Also the movie drive me crazy.

  8. Love the interesting post! We use to have a place in Silverton Colorado and always enjoyed riding the jeep trails. One such trip led us to a ghost town at Annmas Forks.

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