Day 985: The Greatest Show In The Wild Old West

originally published September 11, 2014

It was the kind of sun-whipped summer day that tended to cook the old west like a Thanksgiving turkey. The Central Pacific Railroad had just rolled into town, and a tall man with a face like sawed oak and fiery red hair leaned casually against a corral fence, watching the passengers disembark. Their faces scanned the local buildings for a place to eat. Few of them noticed the smarmy gentleman in the suit who was crossing the street. But the redhead saw him. He stepped away from the fence and shattered the dusty air.

“There ya are, ya low-down polecat!” he bellowed. The passers-by paused in their tracks. “Ah’m gonna kill ya b’cause of what ya did ta mah sister!” He paused, trying to collect himself. “Mah pore, pore little sister.”

The shorter man was frozen in panic. He didn’t react when the redhead pulled out his gun, cocked it, and fired. The shorter man fell to the street, writhed in pain for a moment, then died. The railway passengers sprinted back onto the train, some women fainted and had to be carried to safety as townsfolk wrestled the gun away from the redhead and dragged him off to jail. The dead man was unceremoniously dragged into the nearest saloon while the terrified passengers remained flat against the train’s floor, afraid to move. Thankfully, the train started rolling once again westward.

After the fervor had passed, the townsfolk relaxed with a hearty laugh. In one swift act of amateur theatre, they had just created the legendary old west.

The town of Palisade, Nevada was founded by a man named Willy East, who was looking for a comfy place in which to settle freed slaves. He had been talking with San Francisco resident-of-note Joshua Norton (who had recently declared himself to be Emperor of the United States), who had directed him toward the vast expanse of available Nevada land. The convenient placement of the railroad, as well as the town’s functional toilet – a feature not yet found aboard rail travel – cranked up the local population of the young town to around 300 in the 1870’s.

It was a picturesque little burg, home to a trio of saloons and a well-placed café beside the railway tracks to provide sustenance to the travelers who were pursuing the American Dream out west. Scoundrels and scammers poked and prodded at passenger wallets, selling them useless salt mines and spinning adventurous (and bogus) tales. But where was the “wild west” they had heard so much about?

Newspapers and the precursors of pulp fiction were spreading gory, windswept tales of outlaws, varmints and scalp-happy Injuns all throughout the eastern states. When adventurous voyagers headed west in the early 1870’s to find town after town of relative calm, some had expressed a smidgen of disappointment. One of the Central Pacific conductors mentioned this to one of Palisade’s residents. And thus, a hoax was born.

The locals decided to give the people what they wanted. Not for profit – it’s hard to hock souvenirs when your customer base is scrambling for their lives – but purely for the reaction. This may be the most fantastic demonstration of prolonged collective performance art in American history.

The villainous gentleman in that initial show was Alvin Kittleby, a resident agent and cattle buyer for a company out east. He always dressed well, and was known as the town dandy – essentially a 19th century hipster. The redhead was a cowboy named Frank West, who worked on a cattle ranch just north of town. Everyone in the town limits was in on the gag, and when it worked so brilliantly, they decided to repeat it.

And repeat it they did. Again and again.

What began as a novelty performance soon became a local obsession. Different storylines were conceived with a variety of outcomes, designed to send people scurrying in a panic, but also to enthrall the onlookers on the train who were bold enough to poke their heads up to sneak a peek out the window. Sometimes it was a personal beef gone awry. On occasion the town was hit with an Indian raid, as the nearby Shoshone tribe (who were on very friendly terms with the townspeople) pitched in and fake-slaughtered the white folk. The bank robbery shootouts were always a hit.

Women and children were being murdered in the streets. Not really, but the theatrical enthusiasm displayed by Palisade’s women and children was equal to that of the men. Every single resident pitched in on a performance here and there. People pitched in to create blank cartridges, which were fired by the thousands. The local slaughterhouse regularly contributed buckets of cattle blood to make the scene more grisly. It was beautiful.

It didn’t take long for the word to spread. Palisade was earning the reputation of being the toughest town west of Chicago. Newspapers across the country were describing the bloodshed, the violence, the senseless killings and Indian slaughters. Editorials raged against the US Army for not stepping in and bringing peace to this blood-soaked landscape. How could they allow these innocent people to die?

In fact, the Army was very much aware of the violence in Palisade. They were also in on the joke. Every living soul within a hundred miles of the town knew what was happening, as did every conductor on the Central Pacific Railroad. The only people being fooled were the passengers, and they were fooled every time.

Sometimes the locals would put on two shows per day. Over the course of about three years they executed more than 1000 performances. The town was too small to host a playhouse or theater, but it was the hidden heart of Nevada thespianism. As for actual crime within the town limits, there was none. Zero. The town didn’t even have an actual sheriff, and the local Eureka County deputy had nothing on his to-do list, apart from whatever contribution he made to Palisade’s faux-fighting industry.

After three years or so, the President of the United States caught wind of Palisade’s reputation, and ordered the Army to step in. This was probably handled via telegraph or with one Nevada-area officer popping in to quietly shut down the festivities, but however it went down, Palisade’s long-time hoax was at an end.

The last train ran through Palisade in 1938, and before long the region was little more than a ghost town. An unidentified bidder purchased the entire swath of land for $150,000 in 2005, but at this time there’s nothing to see but a few building foundations and a plaque to let people know it was there. Unfortunately, the plaque offers not even a hint of the unrivaled creativity and improvisational theatricality that took place on that patch of land back in the 1870’s, where the grisly truths of the wild west came to life – at least in the minds of those who had the good fortune to pass through.

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