The Wickedest Cattletown in Kansas
Ellsworth was destined for a turbulent reputation from its very inception. Fort Ellsworth had been established at the very edge of the frontier in 1864. The Cheyenne had driven everyone off the trails leading to Denver City, Colorado Territory, and it was up to the military to reopen the trails. Fort Ellsworth lay at the point of division between the Fort Riley Military Road which led to the Santa Fe Trail and the Smoky Hill Trail, the most direct but also the most treacherous route to Denver City.
The Cheyenne would not go willingly. There were raids upon wagon trains, horses were stolen directly from Fort Ellsworth, and ill equipped soldiers were led on wild chases across the sea of grass known as the Great American Desert. In 1866, the fort was renamed Fort Harker and, in 1867, relocated one mile to the northeast.
Fort Harker would become the major supply post for the military campaigns to subdue the Plains Indians. In this atmosphere the idea of Ellsworth City was conceived. Of course, the idea was to make money from the soldiers and so the city was platted just beyond the Fort Harker Military Reserve. The railroad was nearing the city and the new town overflowed with frontiersmen of every kind. A man could dig a hole in the bluff that bordered the town, set up a table with some cards and a bottle of whiskey within its curtained door, and open for business. In no time, his little dugout would be overrun with soldiers, gamblers, bullwhackers, railroaders, Texas cowboys and the inevitable unruly women that made up the character of doing business in an "end of the line" town.
Only months in existence, Ellsworth was struck a series of near fatal blows. The Smoky Hill River raged out of its banks leaving the town standing in nearly four feet of water. Cholera struck at Fort Harker and spread to Ellsworth. Those who didn't die fled in fear. Nearby Fort Harker was no deterrent to the Cheyenne who killed railroad workers just west of town, attacked bull trains on the trail to Santa Fe, and even stole horses from Ellsworth itself! A handful of people endured it all and began again on higher ground west of the original townsite.
The town was soon to prosper once again and a photograph taken by Alexander Gardner in September of 1867 shows a vibrant and active business district. Ellsworth continued its wicked ways. It was said that "Ellsworth has a man every morning for breakfast!" And that it did! Gunfire and revelry in the streets could be heard at all hours of the night or day. Outlaws rode in and took over the town only to be hung on the hangin' tree when the vigilante committee tired of their shenanigans. Wild Bill Hickok ran for Sheriff in 1868, but there were many equal to the calling in frontier Ellsworth. Former cavalry man, E.W. Kingsbury, defeated him, and along with Chauncey Whitney kept the town from complete madness. Hickok and Redlegs sidekick, Jack Harvey rode the district as Deputy U.S. Marshals.
The tales of gunfights, hangings, and fortunes won and lost are legend. By 1872, the Texas cattle trade had abandoned Abilene. The wild Texas Longhorn trailed through the streets of Ellsworth to the Kansas Pacific Stockyards. The Cowboy reigned supreme, or at least, the gamblers let them think so. The Plaza was filled with men and women from around the world and reporters marveled at the diversity. Nearly every other business was a saloon even though the sign outside might read "Restaurant". The railroad cut the extra wide street in half with businesses facing the tracks, a line on the south and a line on the north. On north main, The OLD RELIABLE HOUSE sold everything a cowboy could ever want or need. The Drovers Cottage was across the tracks and was headquarters for many Texans who could see the stockyards just out their window.
In 1873, Ellsworth geared up for the largest drive of Texas Longhorns to date. They expected trouble, and beefed up the police force to five men. Four of them were named either Jack or John, the other was Ed Hogue who also served as assistant Sheriff of Ellsworth County under Sheriff Chauncey Whitney. The Cowboys poked fun at the city lawmen referring to them as "four Jacks and a Joker". Sheriff Whitney they liked.
The season remained quiet; only one killing. One hot August Sunday Ellsworth erupted in gunplay that would in due time mark the beginning of the end of cattletown Ellsworth. City Marshal, "Happy Jack" Morco sided with a gambler against Texan Ben Thompson in a dispute over the winnings of a game. Ben was a notorious gunman with a reputation equal to Wild Bill's. Ben and his drunken brother Billy had moved to the middle of the Plaza near the depot and called to the others to meet them in the open. The city law was out of control and unable to intercede peaceably in the matter, and so Ellsworth County Sheriff, Chauncey Whitney stepped into the street and called to the Thompsons. In short order he convinced them to take a drink with him and as they stepped into Joe Brennan's Saloon, Happy Jack charged down the street guns drawn. Ben wheeled and fired his Henry rifle narrowly missing Morco, Billy stumbled and discharged his shotgun mortally wounding the Sheriff.
Ben and an army of Texans held off the town as Billy rode away. In the next few weeks 'Hell was in Session in Ellsworth." Happy Jack was fired, Ed Crawford, a new city marshal pistol whipped a Texan to death, Vigilantes roamed the streets issuing "white affidavits" to Texans to "get out of town or else", Happy Jack was gunned down in the streets when he failed to disarm, and a Texan killed Ed Crawford in the dim hallway of Lizzie Palmer's Dancehall.
Most Texans went home to the "girl they left behind" and family dear. Few if ever spoke of the things they saw and did at the "end of the trail". But, the mementos were there. In Ellsworth they had often purchased the first "store bought" clothes they had ever worn. With saddlebags packed with gifts from the north they triumphantly rode home. And though Ellsworth would close its shipping pens in 1875, the story would be told again and again of "Abilene, the first, Dodge City, the last, but Ellsworth the wickedest".
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