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Boom Towns

The popular image of the historic "boom town" is often based upon the motion picture industry's depiction of an isolated and violent Wild West settlement. Nineteenth-century mining and cattle towns grew so uncontrollably that they were seen as conflict-ridden settlements with few public amenities and haphazard planning. The local mentality was exploitative: "Get all you can get, get it as fast as you can, and get out." These towns flourished briefly, then died quickly, leaving broken buildings and few people.

Western cattle towns also sprang up overnight along the cattle trade routes leading from Texas to Kansas and Colorado. Towns like Abilene, Wichita, and Dodge City all served as shipping points for cattle being driven north. Cow towns developed a reputation for violence and lawlessness as hundreds of dusty, rowdy cowboys sought recreation in these towns after weeks or months on the trail. City officials often quarantined the vice by keeping the cowboys, saloons, brothels, and gambling halls in a separate area.

Once the cattle trade moved on or natural resources ran out, boom towns frequently became ghost towns. However, many also acquired stability when new industries were brought in, farms and railroads developed nearby, or industrial mining operations sank shafts to mine ore deep beneath the surface of the land.

Although the boom-town experience was often short-lived, residents of boom towns characteristically displayed a feeling of optimism and hope for the future. At the outset, boom towns were often chaotic as they experienced rapid, inconvenient growth and development. The people learned to tolerate necessary adjustments as well as a host of different newcomers. Often seeking an escape from the rapid changes of urban society, residents of boom towns brought with them a conservatism that resisted fundamental change. For the most part, boom towns transplanted the traditional cultures and institutional structures of prior experiences. A few survived the boom-town experience, especially when new industries or technology were located there, but most boom towns, if they did not become ghost towns, clung to traditional institutional patterns and very quickly imitated older, established communities.

Hear the word Dodge City and you think of shoot outs in the street and lawlessness. Tombstone creates visions of the Earps and the Clantons fighting it out at the OK Coral. The 49'ers built towns wherever the latest strike of gold happened. Miners built towns until the ore was consumed and then moved on. Very few of the Boom Towns emerged as a prosperous city today with a few exceptions.

Boom towns had reputations from when a ore or animal ruled the world. Astoria was built by John Jacob Astor and his fur trading company. A number of towns in Kansas became temporary Boom Towns for cattle until the railroad was extended past the town or the town people did not want to put up with all of the commotion and cowboys. Although Cheyenne, Wyoming started out as one of the wealthiest towns in the cow trade with its exclusive clubs for wealthy ranchers, it is quite a different town today than when it was the center of the cow trade. Mining towns were built, the ore was used up and then people moved on to the next ore strike.

Ghost Towns all developed for varying lengths of time as Boom Towns and languished or died as agricultural technology changed ... transportation lines developed and shifted ... mineral resources became depleted ... and a new life style came into existence. In other words, a town becomes a ghost town when its source of income vanishes and the people vanish with it.

Mining towns like Aspen, Central City, Black Hawk, and Cripple Creek — more gold came out of Cripple Creek than the whole California mother lode — have been reborn as a gambling or ski resort. But most have fallen into permanent obscurity, lonely and isolated. All that's left are a few crumbling buildings, the last evidence it was ever someone's home.

Mining played an important part in the development of the U.S. Many Boom Towns went bust after the mineral that was being mined became depleted, or the ore became unprofitable. Early Boom Towns in the 1880's through the 1900's were lawless places which were run by company gangs or union gangs. Ghost Towns are all that remain of some of the mining towns, while other towns have evolved with new industries. Some of the mining towns are still living on the mines, and even some with the reputations of lawlessness of the turn of the century.

With each new oil pool brought into production, one or more boom towns were created. Many of these suddenly thriving communities previously had been rural hamlets, but others were entirely new creations spawned by the rush for wealth. Most of the boom towns sank back into obscurity or oblivion when production declined from the pools which had given them life. Several of them, however, survived and are modern, progressive communities. The development of most boom towns followed a similar pattern. First, the discovery of a new pool of oil by an enterprising wildcatter would ignite a frenzy of excitement marked by a furious scramble to lease the most promising lands. With the beginning of drilling activity, the community nearest the fields would be inundated by oil-field workers. This rush of humanity would stimulate the frantic construction of hotels, cafÃ-¨s, pool halls, and other establishments designed to meet the needs of the workers. The town would mushroom as men and women of various backgrounds would flock to the area to share in the wealth generated by the black gold flowing from the earth. Frequently the boom towns were so crowded that workers were forced to sleep in tents, on rooftops, or even under pool tables.

It had taken more than half a century from the time the nation's first railroad was chartered to build a transcontinental railroad. It took only 12 more years to build the second, this one coming to a junction in New Mexico and providing the first direct line to Southern California. In fact, during the 1870's and 1880's an unparalleled explosion of growth occurred for the railroads. 110,675 miles of road were added to the rail system during this time. By 1916, the nation's rail system was at its peak, with 254,000 miles of road linking city to town and town to village.

To stimulate business along the spreading network of rail lines, the railroads actively sought immigrants to "colonize" the Western regions. The potential of the American West was advertised widely, not only in the United States but in Europe as well. Industry opened along those rail lines. Towns and cities developed where before there had been only prairie or forest or hills.

Perhaps the most noteworthy role of the 19th century western newspaper was that of town booster. Acting as the town booster, or "booming"- the town, essentially meant proclaiming the virtue and merit of your hamlet for all the world to hear. The motive behind such action could lie in any number of places, as newspaper editor could boost areas for their personal benefit or be hired to crow on another's behalf. Either way, the newspaper's role in populating, and to a lesser extent civilizing, the West should not be overlooked.Moreover, although discussed below as a phenomena of the frontier West, the printers had long played an important part in disseminating populations in the East, as cities like Pittsburgh, PA and Lexington, KY owe their rapid 18th century growth to the efforts of community minded printers.

The "booster spirit"- frequently led western printers down the path of the unknown, as transient printers generally "aimed not at the known needs of an existing community but at the needs some future community for which they so desperately hoped."- This desperate hope often led to taking certain liberties with the facts of an area, and barren, relatively lawless areas were sometimes billed as virtuous and well established. As one more realistic editor said of the more dubious claims of his peers, they "sometimes represented things that had not yet gone through the formality of taking place."-

Despite this occasionally tenuous relationship with the truth, newspaper boomers were generally well-intentioned, and they talked up the towns they resided in because of a belief in the success that awaited the towns in the future. Indeed, the hyperbolized prose was often necessary to attract potential immigrants. Further, attempted booming was no exception to the rule, as "it was a rare town that did not have at least one weekly newspaper loudly proclaiming its existence."- Another well worn tactic was to end a community's name in "city"-, thus allowing the potential settler to believe that they were casting their lots with a metropolis on the brink.

By the end of the 1860s, railroad tracks ran the length of the country. Transnational travel, formerly a months long ordeal, could now be accomplished in a few days. The railroads, eager to hasten the development that would fill their almost empty coffers, organized a forceful campaign to encourage western settlement. The once foreboding desert was now described as paradise on earth, a land of fine soil, beautiful scenery, and incomparably rich soil; misleading to be sure, for if the plains "were unrecognizable as a desert, they were absurd as a garden."- The newspapers, too played a role in the railroad led boom, as rail companies frequently either hired an editor to ride the rail and report on the land's splendor. The language of such promotion stressed the comfort and virtue of life in the West.

Similar in method though differing in motive, the small town newspaper editor frequently capitalized on the new opportunities that the railroad had provided. . Indeed, booming became considerably easier when moving west no longer entailed great hardship. As the 1800s came to a close, and the far western United States began to seem less foreboding and relatively well established, newspapermen turned their attention to booming the great middle-- especially areas that now had railroad access, and states like Oklahoma and Texas became arguably the last phase of western boosting.



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