HOWARD HICKSON'S HISTORIES
[Index]

Wild, Wild West: 
Act One, Scene One

Palisade, Nevada was known as the roughest, toughest town west of Chicago in the 1870's. Newspapers over the nation carried news of senseless killings. Editors penned reams of text about the waste of human life and begged town or county law enforcers to clean up the evil hamlet on the Central Pacific Railroad line.

Their pleadings fell on deaf ears. Violence, gunfire and the specter of death reigned on the streets of Palisade for three long years.

In the first reported incident, Frank West was leaning against a corral fence down by the railroad depot when the noon train from the east ground to a hissing stop. Passengers stepped from the cars to eat lunch.

Alvin Kittleby approached Frank. West saw him coming, stiffened, took his cigarette from his mouth and dropped it to the ground. His cold eyes watched Alvin until the two were within pistol range.

"There ya are, ya lowdown polecat!," screamed Al. "I've been waitin' for ya. I'm gonna kill ya for what ya done to my pore little sister!"

Saying nothing, Frank knitted his brow, put on a feral grin, and quickly drew his revolver. Cocking it, he took careful aim and fired.

Kittleby clutched his chest, screamed in agony and fell to the dusty street. He writhed in pain the last two or three seconds of his life.

Women screamed and fainted. Men ran in all directions, most to hide behind any handy barrier. Several approached poor Alvin's still body, gently picked him up, and carried the lifeless bundle to the nearest saloon. Others quickly disarmed West and dragged him, kicking and screaming, to the jail.

Over in seconds, the battle must have lasted for what seemed hours to the frightened train passengers. None seemed to have an appetite left and most weakly climbed back into the cars. Few had the guts to look out the windows. Some, still shaken by the scene they witnessed, crouched on floors and behind seats. They all breathed a collective sigh of relief when the engineer signaled with the whistle that the train was ready to leave.

When the caboose disappeared behind the first curve out of town, the people of Palisade began laughing and continued to guffaw for three more years. This was their first performance, an act they put on for tenderfoot rail travelers more than one thousand times before tiring of the joke.

Yep. The whole town was in on the drama. West was a tall, good-looking cowhand from a nearby ranch and Kittleby was the resident agent and buyer for a cattle company.

Variations of the original hoax continued. Sometimes there was a bank robbery with a noisy shootout between the sheriff, his posse, and the robbers. Another time local Shoshones were drafted to "massacre" the townspeople, especially those near the depot. The massacre was a full-fledged production taking ten minutes and a gallon of beef blood from the slaughterhouse.

During the three years Palisade people indulged in pretend violent episodes not one real crime was committed. In fact, the town was so law-abiding and peace-loving that the local Eureka County deputy had nothing to do.

Truth was, joshing the emigrants traveling west was a common pastime. Usually the actors were the boys from the saloons who concocted magnificent con jobs to rattle tourists.

On April 7, 1880, a westbound passenger train stopped in Elko. A few local barflies put their heads together. They headed for the depot, snickering all the way.

Putting on a straight face, one ran over to the train conductor waving a fake telegraph message.

Breathless, he gasped, "I just received this from my brother who has a little spread a few miles this side of Carlin. He says the Indians have broken loose and are playing hell with the settlers at Blue Horse Gulch. They are scalping women and children and headed this way."

Train passengers, infiltrated with local wags, mobbed the two men asking them what they should do.

Another jokester ran to the crowd and told them he and some companions had been captured by the Indians. He took off his hat, held it to his heart and sadly said half his group had been lost.

He then burst into tears and sobbed, "Poor little Jimmy! I saw him shot and scalped right before my eyes!"

On the verge of panic, passengers begged the conductor to delay the train in Elko until the Indian trouble was over.

Pulling out his watch and glancing at the time, he told them, "The company has rules and the train must go on. I suggest you all arm yourselves and anyone else in the family who can shoot."

That did it. The passengers were ready to take over the train, even if by force. With a straight and serious face he put on an arm-bending sales pitch promising he would back the train back to Elko at the first sign of Indian trouble. With his reassurance, the reluctant tourists climbed back into the cars and began cleaning and checking their weapons.

With great clouds of steam spewing from both sides of the engine, the train picked up speed and chugged off into the sunset. When the train was out of sight, a small band of men with smug grins stood in front of the depot. Suddenly, uncontrolled laughter replaced their smiles. Pleased with their horseplay, the group adjourned to the nearest watering hole to toast their success in scaring hell out of scores of tenderfeet from back east.

Even 20th century train passengers were not immune to high jinks by locals. In August 1902 hundreds of Knights of Pythius members headed for San Francisco for a national meeting.

One of the special convention trains was struck at Deeth, Nevada. In the words of one of the Knights when he reported the incident in Elko: "I've read a lot about the wild and wooly west, but this morning I witnessed the genuine article.

"Out there on the desert, at a little station called Deeth, we saw a man hanging from a telegraph pole. A placard on his coat stated that he had been hanged by vigilantes for stealing a horse.

"Then, while the train waited, a crowd of men rushed out of a saloon and fired their rifles at another crowd of cowboys, killing four of them.

"Then a number of Indians dressed in feathers and blankets, with war paint on, rode down the street, pointed their guns at the train and threatened to kill anyone who stuck his head out of a window. I tell you, Nevada is a lawless place!"

Local Knights of Phythias planned the whole thing and kept the fictionalized Wild West alive for a few minutes that left a lot of traveling Knights with blanched faces as the train pulled out of Deeth.

Note: These accounts are true. They were taken from newspaper articles recorded at the time the events were staged. Perhaps this was the beginning of amateur community theater in the Sagebrush State.

©1998 by Howard Hickson. If any portion or all of this article is used or quoted proper credit must be given to the authors.

[Back to Hickson's Histories Index]