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Here’s What 8 Wild West Towns Looked Like Then and Now

You ride into town, sliding down off your horse, dust rising from your footfalls, spurs jingling at your heels. The trigger finger is itchy for the revolver at your side. Somewhere glass breaks and a woman laughs. A lawman eyes you warily as he crosses the street. You tip your hat and an ace of hearts falls out. You hastily stuff it back inside.

You’ve heard there’s gold in them hills and you’re aiming to make some of it yours. But you’d be just as happy with a bottle of whiskey, a loose woman and a good draw at poker.

You’re in the Old West.

Sometimes a name is all it takes to evoke the image and feel of a place. Deadwood. Tombstone. Dodge City. These places are larger than life, or at least were, once upon a time. What were they like back then, and what are they like now?

Read on to find out.

8. Deadwood, South Dakota

There may be no name more evocative of the Wild West than Deadwood.

What is was like back then: People got gunned down over hands of poker (aces and eights, the dead man’s hand is from here).

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Public Domain

What it’s like now: Watch daily shootouts on Main Street or re-enactments of Wild Bill Hickok’s slaying. Visit Calamity Jane’s grave. It’s safe to say that Deadwood has embraced its Wild West past. And with good reason; the entire town is a National Historic Landmark. If you’re feeling like the Old West, Deadwood’s your place.

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7. Cripple Creek, Colorado

Cripple Creek was the home to the last great Colorado gold rush and one of the largest gold strikes in history.

What it was like back then: Cripple Creek was flooded with prospectors looking to strike it rich and burning down pretty much everything in the process. (The city was destroyed twice by fire in 1896. In a period of four months.)

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Public Domain

What it’s like now: Cripple Creek has legalized gambling and is home to casinos in many of the town’s historic buildings. It is also being hummed by just about everyone who is reading this right now: “Up on Cripple Creek/she sends me…”

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Public Domain

6. Tombstone, Arizona

Just the name alone is enough to conjure up visions of wide-brimmed cowboys and gunfights.

What it was like back then: The mines at Tombstone pumped out somewhere around $50 million of silver bullion in a little more than 10 years at the end of the 19th century. The Earp brothers tried to keep the drinking, prostitution, gambling and carousing at bay. People got shot. A lot. Just not actually at the O.K. Corral.

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Public Domain

What it’s like now: Tombstone remains a bit of a curiosity of a town with a population of just over 1,000. Its dependent upon its tourism trade. It’s also, surprisingly, home to the world’s largest rose bush.

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Grombo

5. Dodge City, Kansas

If you’ve ever had to “get out of Dodge,” you may understand what this wildest of Wild West towns was like back when Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson were patrolling the streets.

What it was like back then: Dodge City served as a railhead for longhorns coming up from Texas to be put on a trail and shipped west. It also boasted an alarmingly high number of gunfighters, brothels, and all other manner or Wild West shenanigans.

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What it’s like now: Dodge City’s economy is centered around meatpacking, not too far from its Queen of the Cowtowns origins. Though there is a healthy historic district and tourism trade, the number of brothers and gunfights has plummeted.

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Flickr/Kent Kanouse

4. Santa Fe, New Mexico

Founded in 1610 by a Spanish Don as a capital of the area, Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the United States. For hundreds of years, it served as the seat of the province and region.

What it was like back then: Santa Fe was an important government and trade center and destination of the Santa Fe Trail.

 

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Public Domain

 

What it’s like now: Santa Fe has preserved much of its unique cultural heritage and is a UNESCO Creative City, earning the award for its support of the arts. It is a popular tourist destination and consistently ranks as being one of the U.S.’s best places to live.

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Flickr/Kevin Armstrong

3. Virginia City, Nevada

You might not have heard of Virginia City, Nevada before or consider it an important Old West town. But the single richest deposit of silver and gold ever struck in the continental U.S. was found here in 1859.

What it was like back then: Virginia City was a mining boom town. People came to make fortunes and they did. They also lost them, got killed in the mines, and all other manner of Old West-y things. Even Samuel Clemens (you know him as Mark Twain) found his way to Virginia City.

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What it’s like now: A whopping 800 or so people live there. It is nearly entirely devoted to tourism and preserves its historic character. It is a National Historic Landmark.

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TheConduqtor

2. Sheridan, Wyoming

Sheridan, Wyoming lies smack dab in the middle of traditional Sioux and Crow hunting grounds on the Bloody Bozeman Trail. The area was home to such legends as Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse. But that didn’t stop gold seekers from flocking to the area.

What it was like back then: General Custer was busy getting his entire regiment killed at the nearby Battle of Little Bighorn.

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F.J. Bardholtz

What it’s like now: Sheridan is home to over 17,000 residents with 10 sites on the National Register of Historic Places. It is consistently ranked among the best true western towns.

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Flickr/Kevin Dooley

1. San Francisco

San Francisco. What is there to say about San Francisco? The California gold rush turned what was a town of 1,000 into a metropolis of over 25,000 in less than a year in 1849.

What it was like back then: The Barbary Coast, near Portsmouth Square, was a lawless shanty presided over by criminals and vigilante justice. Shipfuls of British convicts meant for the Australian penal colonies landed and set fire to San Francisco six times in four years to distract residents while they looted and pillages.

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Public Domain

What it’s like now: Portsmouth Square is a pleasant plaza on the edge of Chinatown. There is almost no looting or pillaging.

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Flickr/Greg Poulos

What it’s like now: Portsmouth Square is a pleasant plaza on the edge of Chinatown. There is almost no looting or pillaging.

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Here’s What 8 Wild West Towns Looked Like Then and Now