Dodge City is one of seven iconic Western towns featured in our 2017 Best of the West issue.
Once upon a time in the Old West, a drunken cowboy climbed aboard the Santa Fe train in Newton, Kansas, and was asked by the conductor where he was heading.
“To hell,” said the cowboy.
“Well, give me $2.50 and get off at Dodge, then,” replied the conductor.
Or so goes another weathered yarn about one of the most colorful Western outposts of its day.
“Stories like this and tales of wild nightlife and gun battles gave Dodge City the reputation of being the toughest town in America,” Kansas historian Floyd Benjamin Streeter would note in Prairie Trails and Cow Towns: The Opening of the Old West — while qualifying that “the perpetuation of this impression does Dodge City an injustice.”
Founded in 1872, it was soon dubbed the Cowboy Capital of the World (or Queen of the Cowtowns or the Beautiful Bibulous Babylon of the Frontier, depending on whom you asked). Dodge City’s rapid transformation from desolate Army post (Fort Dodge) to stockyard boomtown by the mid-1870s with the rerouting of the Great Western Cattle Trail has launched the lion’s share of its Lonesome Dove tales and memorable Gunsmoke episodes. In fact, the city’s historical heyday was rather short-lived, peaking in the early 1880s before the cattle trail was again rerouted and legendary residents like Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holliday (his dental office was here) moved on to busier pastures and corrals.
Nearly a century and a half later, plenty of pride, heritage, and history remain in a town still famous for beef production, brick roads, cowboy culture, singular Old West attractions — and some of the friendliest Midwestern hospitality this side of Wichita.
“One of the things folks really like to see here is the feedlots and sale of cattle on sale days — a very organic and earthy experience and something most ‘city’ folks have never experienced,” says Jan Stevens, director of the Dodge City Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s just one of those ‘open-the-door-for-you, cowboy-hat-tipping’ kind of towns. Everyone knows the old ‘Get the hell out of Dodge’ phrase. But around here, we like to say, ‘Get the heck into Dodge.’ ”
Whiz through the town’s historic district on a Trolley Historic Tour and save some steps for the Dodge City Trail of Fame, which starts at Wyatt Earp Boulevard and honors every big name that made the place Dodge. Ground zero is Front Street’s Boot Hill Museum, packed with Old West relics, interactive exhibits, and (in summer) a cast of historical interpreters and storytellers that lend extra character to the city’s premier historical showpiece.
HIT THE TRAIL
Stretching through five states between Missouri and New Mexico, the Santa Fe National Historic Trail preserves one of its remaining sets of original wagon tracks at the Dodge City Ruts — 9 miles west of town, with an interpretive walkway.
Last summer, downtown’s Long Branch Lagoon (largest water park between Wichita and Denver, they say) went Western-themed — chuck wagon concessions included — and continues to be an obvious family solution to a hot July day. Float along Cowboy Creek Lazy River, ride the Wrangler Rapids wave pool, and scream down Doc’s Plunge, the park’s signature boomerang slide.
RAISE A GLASS
Fun fact: Dodge City’s first business was an 1872 “whiskey bar” constructed from a wooden plank and two sod pillars exactly 5 miles from the edge of Fort Dodge, where soldiers could legally drink. Funner fact: The new Boot Hill Distillery (western Kansas’ first craft distillery) picks up where that barrel left off — welcoming a new era of whiskey appreciation with locally sourced, milled, distilled bottles and cocktails.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR
The 57th annual Dodge City Days (July 28 – August 6) has evolved from its earliest years (when rodeo tickets cost 75 cents) into one of the state’s largest community festivals. Drawing 100,000 guests, the 10-day event celebrates Dodge’s roots with rodeo, parades, and the year’s hottest barbecue contest.
More info: visitdodgecity.org