Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Old West Towns: Real or Myth?

 Shops and businesses on the streets away from the center of town were laid out willy-nilly, some with entryways facing alleyways. Boardinghouses and private homes were planted on lots in haphazard fashion, as if tossed in place by chance, like dice in a gambler’s hand. -Haywire, Texas

I’m working on a new 3-book series that takes place in the fictional town of Haywire, Texas.  Book one, Cowboy Charm School will be published in September.
Before I could begin writing, it was necessary to map out my town.  Fans of western movies might think that’s a bit strange.  When a town is only one street wide and a block long, what’s to map out?  Well, for one thing, western movie sets are generally much smaller than a real town ever was, and less spread out.
The town in my book was built prior to the Civil War.  That’s important to know, because towns founded before the war generally sprang-up along wandering cow paths.   If you ever got lost in parts of Boston, as I once did, you’d know how confusing such towns can be.
Fortunately, after the war, town founders hired surveyors to plat grids oriented to railroad specifications. This practice came too late to help the poor residents of Haywire—or my hero who gets lost while chasing a bad guy through town.
Another thing I had to consider when creating my town was the size and shape of buildings. Business taxes in the Old West were calculated on width. For that reason, shops and saloons were built long and narrow. What was generally called Outhouse Alley ran behind the buildings, parallel to the main thoroughfare.
Some buildings did double-duty. Schools often shared space with the Oddfellows or Masons, and shopkeepers lived over shops. 
Like most late nineteenth century towns, my town’s main street is T-shaped which runs into the railroad.  On the other end of Main, the town is split in two by a hundred-foot wide cross street.  A street like this was known in many western towns as the Dead Line, the purpose of which was to separate moral businesses from those beyond the pale.
Dead Line streets were wide enough so that anyone who accidentally ventured into the wrong side of town, occupied by saloons, bordellos and in Haywire’s case, the barbershop, could easily turn horse and wagon around.  Thus delicate constitutions were saved and reputations left intact.
Typically, the bank would be built next to the sheriff or marshal’s office, which explains why bank robberies in the Old West were rare. Only the most daring outlaw would attempt a bank robbery. It was much easier to rob stages—and a whole lot healthier.
Movies do get some things right. For example, buildings in many towns were mostly wood with false fronts.  These fake facades were added to make hastily-built buildings look more impressive and provide a place for signage.  Some towns, especially in the south-west where few trees could be found, were built mostly from adobe.
Speaking of movies; what western would be complete without having the hero barge through a saloon’s batwing doors? In reality, not every saloon had such doors. In some parts of the country, it was too cold or windy and too much dust would blow inside. Saloons that did have caf√© doors also had standard doors that could be shut and locked when necessary.  A tour guide at Universal Studios explained that movie sets had saloon doors of different sizes: an extra-large one to make the heroine appear small and demure, and an extra-small door to make the hero appear taller and more imposing.
Another thing that frontier towns had that won’t be found on most western movie lots was a sign telling visitors to check their guns.  Nor will you find such a sign in my town of Haywire. Hee-Haw!

 Have you ever visited a ghost town?




  1. Thank you for sharing your must interesting post, Margaret. I love visiting and learning at HHH. I have visited a ghost town up in the mountains of Colorado.

    1. Hi Melanie, thank you. Colorado has some great ghost towns. I once planned on visiting them all. Then I found out that more than 600 of them still existed.

  2. Hi Margaret. Interesting post. I visited Silver City, Idaho, which have me a realistic picture of a town in the Old West. Fascinating. I didn't see a "check your guns" sign though.

    1. Hi Marilyn, I've been to Idaho many times, but have yet to visit a ghost town there. I'll have to put Silver City on my list of places to visit.

  3. Great info, Margaret! I hadn't heard about the Dead Line before but it makes perfect sense. I've visited a ghost town in Colorado, but I can't remember the name of it.

  4. Hi Vickie, I came across the Dead Line while researching my last book. If does make sense. It wouldn't do to have a bordello next to, say, the schoolhouse!

  5. You're welcome, Connie! Thank you for stopping by.

  6. Very interesting post, Margaret. I had not heard of that Dead Line before, nor have I seen it portrayed in western movies...oh, wait, maybe I did see it once as a wagon turned around in the middle of the town street but it was not a very wide street, just barely enough room to turn the wagon around.

    I have not visited a "ghost town".
    Blessings, Tina

  7. Hi Tina, thank you. The Dead Line was new to me, too. But it worked perfectly in my book. Hope you get a chance to visit a ghost town.