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Life in the USA

Wild West Towns

Gold was discovered at a small mountain stream n California during 1848.  That monumental discovery soon attracted hundreds of thousands of young men who ventured across the dangerous and unsettled continent of North America in search of their fortunes.  This army of westward immigrants were originally known as "fourty niners" in commemoration of the year of the great migration. 

From 1849 until the end of the nineteenth century, "gold fever" swept across the western parts of the United States of America.  "Prospecters" in search of Gold, Silver and other precious metals searched all over California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and other states.  Both Gold and Silver were eventually found in a number of different locations.

Each fortuitous find drew a flood of fortune seekers hoping to profit by the newly found riches.  Within weeks, the site of any new mineral find was quickly transformed into a crowded, busy new "gold camp".  A few months later, the camp became a prospering new "gold town" with saloons, brothels, dance halls, stores and hotels.  The population of some of the gold towns grew from zero to thousands of inhabitants in just a few months.  They were also known as "boom towns" because of their booming local economy based on the riches extracted from their mines.

These boom towns were wild raucous places were money flowed like water.  Drinking, gambling and bawdy entertainment were ubiquitous.  Drunken brawls, robberies, gun fights and murders were common daily occurances.  Many of the tales of the "Wild West" and its infamous "outlaws", "bandits" and "gunfighters" took place in these gold towns.

Unfortunately, the riches proved transitory as the gold and silver was extracted.  Most of the gold towns were "busted" or economically ruined within a few short years. when their mineral resources were exhausted.  The fortune seekers soon departed for more promising locations.  The saloons, brothels, stores, dancehalls and hotels closed.  Most of the population moved away.  Most of the old gold towns were completely abondened when the last inhabitants left, and only the empty shells of buildings and the remnants of discarded mining equipment was left to show that a town once existed.  They became "ghost towns"

There are still many ghost towns in existance across the western half of the USA.  In most cases, only the foundations of some buildings and a few crumbling chimneys mark the location of a once booming gold town.  In a few cases, the surviving remnants of an old ghost town have survived or have been preserved to mark the site of a departed boom town.  One such location is the ghost town of Bodie California.  Located on a high mountain plateau west of Yosemite Park and near Mono Lake, this old gold town that once claimed a population of 10,000 inhabitants, now consists of several dozens of decrepit buildings, an array of crumbling old mining equipment and a large gold and silver processing facility.  The state of California has converted it into a historical park that you can visit.  It is but one of nearly a hundred old ghost towns that you can visit in the West.

More rare are the old gold towns that somehow survived without becoming a ghost town.  One well known survivor is not a gold town at all, but was originally a borax town on the edge of Death Valley.  It is the small, almost ghost town, of Death Valley Junction California that was saved from extinction by Marta Becket, an artist and ballet dancer who moved to this nearly abandoned corner of the desert in 1962.  Marta, lovingly, restored the old Amaragosa Opera House, and for 35 years has held solo performances on its stage before a typical audience of local desert inhabitants and curious tourists.  You can still see Marta perform every Sunday.

Another famous gold town has been preserved in Northern Nevada near Carson City and Lake Tahoe.  It is Virginia City Nevada, perched on the side of a mountain and straddling the once fabulously rich Comstock Silver Vein.  Many of the original buildings have been preserved or restored to form a modern representation of the ofd town in its boom times.  You can visit this town, eat in its several restaurants, stay at one of its old-time hotels, or shop in its many stores and souvenir shops.

One of the most famous Wild West gold towns is located in the southeastern corner of Arizona.  In 1877, an emigree from Pennsylvania named Ed Schieffelin accompanied an army detachment as a part-time scout to Fort Huachuca, southwest of Tucson.  When he proposed to go prospecting for gold alone in the forbidding desert where unconquered Apache Indians were wont to kill and mutilate any interloper, the soldiers laughed at him, and joked that the only rock he would find would be his own tombstone.  .Ed discovered a rich lode of Silver about ten miles east of the fort.  He named his mine "the Tombstone" and the town that grew at that site also became known as Tombstone Arizona.

Like most gold towns, Tombstone soon acquired a reputation for booming wealth, riotous entertainments and lawlessness.  By 1877, two opposing factions dominated the local society.  The "cowboys" were rural ranchers who also engaged in cattle rustling (stealing), robbery, smuggling and even murder. The townfolk, mostly immigrant miners from Cornwall England and Germany, were in favor of establishing order and peace. They had elected a Sheriff and outlawed the carrying of firearms within the town.  On the evening of October 26, 1881, violence erupted when a group of cowboys including the Clanton brothers and the McLaury brothers came to town armed and threatening to kill Doc Holliday, the gunfighter, gambler, friend of Wyatt Earp.  Deputy US marshall, Virgil Earp with brothers Wyatt and Frank plus Doc Holliday went together to disarm and arrest the cowboys.  In the ensuing gunfight, Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury were killed.  Doc Holliday, Frank and Virgil Earp were wounded.  This altercation is known historically as "the Gunfight at the OK corral" and has been the subject of numerous books and films.

You can visit Tombstone Arizona and see many of the old buildings as they existed at the time of the gunfight.  Some of the local citizens even dress up in nineteenth century costume and demonstrate shooting and simulated gunfights.  You can even go to "boot hill", as the local cemetary is known, and see the graves of Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers.

Another, well preserved, famous wild west gold town is Deadwood South Dakota.  This boom town sprouted in the sacred Indian lands of the Black Hills soon after gold was discovered.  It also had a reputation for lavish wealth, bawdy entertainment and violent lawlessness.  It was in Deadwood on August 2, 1876 that the famous lawman and gunfighter named Wild Bill Hickock was shot dead as he played poker in a saloon.  His poker hand contained two aces and two eights which has ever since been known as "the dead mans hand" in poker.  Calamity Jane, colorful hard-drinking, course talking and gun-toting companion to Wild Bill was a prominent resident of Deadwood at the time.  Numerous books and films have been released depicting the boom times in Deadwood and the lives of its two most colorful citizens.  You can visit Deadwood and still see the graves of Wild Bill hickock and Calamity Jane.  


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