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Hays, Kansas - Lawless in the Old Days


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The county seat of Ellis County, Hays is located a little south of the center of the county at the point where the Union Pacific Railroad crosses Big Creek. When Fort Hays was established in the early part of 1867, and that same year, the Kansas Pacific Railroad planned to make their way to the area, a number of people thought it profitable to establish a town site. The first were William F. Cody, who had been hunting buffalo for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, and a partner named William Rose, who established the town site of Rome in June, 1867. The town grew quickly and by the end of July, the fledgling settlement boasted over 2,000 citizens.


Cody and Rose; however, would make a fatal mistake when they refused to take on a man named Dr. William Webb as a partner in their town site venture. Unknown to them, Webb had the authority to establish town sites for the railroad, and when Cody and Rose refused him, he established the Big Creek Land Company, which platted the town of Hays City, on the other side of Big Creek about a mile east of Rome.


Fort Hays

Fort Hays


A rivalry at once sprang up between the two places, but the railroad company threw its support to Hays City and Buffalo Bill Cody and William Rose were soon giving free lots away to anyone willing to build or erect a tent in the town. Despite their promotional efforts, many of the citizens and businesses of Rome soon moved to nearby Hays City to be closer to the railroad. A year later, there was nothing left of Rome.

Hays City, in the meantime, was prospering as hundreds of people flocked to the new town, especially after the railroad arrived. Within no time, the town boasted numerous business and dozens of new houses. Many of those that were previously located in Rome were moved to Hays City, including the Perry Hotel, which was renamed the Gibbs House, and the Moses & Bloomfield general store. In October, another hotel was built by a man named Boggs and a post office was established. Most of the early buildings were frame structures but the first substantial improvement was a stone building used as a drug store. The city’s first newspaper, called the Railway Advance, also was established that first year. For several years, Hays would be the point from which the west and southwest obtained supplies before the railroad was completed to Dodge City. Within a year, the town boasted more than 1,000 residents.


The city had a brief setback when the railroad pushed westward to Sheridan in 1868, and many businesses moved their buildings to the town. While it put a temporary check to the business of Hays, it also had its advantages, as it eliminated from the town, many of its desperate characters. Hays, like Junction City and Great Bend, was never a major cattle market, but during the time it was the western terminus of the railroad, it had its days of notoriety. During this time, it was one of the most stirring, as well as one of the deadliest places in the West. Business, for a time, was exceedingly lively, as it became the outfitting station for all wagon trains following the Smoky Hill Trail eastward. At the same time, it became the railhead for which thousands of head of cattle were driven northward from Texas to be shipped eastward. Within no time, numerous notorious characters flocked there, giving the place anything but an enviable reputation. Business houses, many of which were only of a temporary character, sprung up like mushrooms, and saloons were opened by the dozens. At the first meeting of the Board of County Commissioners no less than 37 licenses to sell liquor were granted in two days. For a time it seemed as if all the disreputable characters of both sexes on the frontier were centered in Hays City. Saloons and brothels flourished, and against the characters that frequented these businesses, the better element of the community was powerless.


Hays City was not an exception to other frontier towns that sprung into existence as the railway stretched westward, but the sheer numbers of disreputable characters that came to the city was, for a time, a curse to the place. The early history of Hays City is one of bloodshed and the class of desperados that the place was infested with, placed but very little value on human life.


Wild Bill Hickok

Wild Bill Hickok

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The town was the scene of many an exploit of Wild Bill Hickok from 1867 to 1869, who served as a “Special Marshal.” Hickok's character for daring and recklessness, his established reputation for expertness in getting the "drop," and sureness of aim made him the dread of others equally bad and reckless as himself. Believing that such a man was the best person to protect the law-abiding people against the thugs, the citizens employed him to help clear the town of lawlessness. While he was employed, he killed two soldiers, two citizens, and wounded several others. After killing the soldiers, he fled to evade military authorities and was next heard of at Abilene.


Hickok; however, was far from the worst character that found his way to Hays City during its early days. A man named Jim Curry was one of the most depraved specimens that ever visited the western country. He was said to have been disreputable and wicked, without a single redeeming quality.


No person was safe against his attacks -- his murderous weapons aimed at all alike. During his short stay in the city, he killed several black men, some of whom he threw into a dry well and he killed a man named Brady by cutting his throat, after which he threw him into an empty box car.


Another time he was going up the street, and meeting a quiet, inoffensive youth, named Estes, who was about 18 years old, told him to throw up his hands. The youth begged that he would not kill him, but the villain, deaf to all such appeals, placed a revolver to the boy's breast and sent a bullet through his heart, stepped over his dead body and walked away.


This cowardly act aroused the citizens, and they then determined to protect themselves, dealing out vigilante style punishment upon all offenders against life and property. This action had the effect of driving many of the evil-doers away but a great deal had to be accomplished before the town would be tamed.



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Hays City, Kansas, 1867

Hays City, Alexander Gardner, 1867.

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