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Palisade, Nevada's Staged Events Made It A 19th-Century 'Westworld'

For a short time during the late 19th century, Palisade, Nevada, held the distinction of being one of the most violent places in the United States. The town, located along the Central Pacific Railroad, had a reputation for bloodshed - everything one would expect from a lawless Wild West town.

But in truth, Palisade was a peaceful community, one that crafted its image to meet the needs of visitors and residents alike. Residents and their confederates put on shows for passers-by, staging elaborate gunfights, robberies, and hangings associated with archetypal Wild West settlements. What Palisade, Nevada, accomplished resulted in a lucrative, albeit short-lived, run as a must-see attraction in the American West. 

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  • The Sleepy Town of Palisade Was Considered By Some Historians To Be The First Theme Park
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Sleepy Town of Palisade Was Considered By Some Historians To Be The First Theme Park

    Palisade capitalized on Americans' fascination with the Wild West, putting on shows for travelers and visitors. Local residents participated in Old West-style events soon after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, with the first event taking place as early as 1876.

    In many ways, Palisade set the foundations for how later theme parks portrayed the West, staging mock gunfights similar to those seen in modern parks like Old Tuscon (a movie theater and theme park near Tuscon, Arizona) and the Six Gun Territory park in Ocala, Florida. 

  • The Hoax Was Inspired By People’s Appetite For Wild West Experiences And Boredom

    The impetus for faux violence in Palisade, Nevada, was twofold. As passengers passed through the town, they may have lamented never having seen any real of the "real Wild West." Townspeople could have overheard this and decided to act.

    It's also been theorized that residents of Palisade themselves were bored and looking for a way to entertain themselves. As a town dependent upon nearby mining communities, Palisade was, according to a reporter from the Weekly Elko Independent, "unusually dull, but still those who are in business don't growl. They simply pray for better times." 

    The hoax met both needs. Palisade, Nevada, was able to craft its own image and boost its economy, giving visitors what they wanted while expending some pent-up energy. The tourism increase was an additional benefit. 

  • The Acts Of Aggression Were All A Hoax By Townspeople For The Tourists Who Came In Via Train
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Acts Of Aggression Were All A Hoax By Townspeople For The Tourists Who Came In Via Train

    Lore indicates the first staged confrontation took place when Frank West and Alvin Kittleby exchanged words, the former calling out, "There ya are, ya low-down polecat. Ah bin waitin' fer ya. Ah'm goin' to kill ya b'cause of what ya did ta mah sister."

    The residents of Palisade enthusiastically participated in the mock fights. Sometimes local members of local Native American tribes or railway workers joined in. As the train approached, men, women, and children took their places, readying for their roles. Women cried and men carried off their targets as scared onlookers ducked under seats and hid behind rail cars, terrified for their lives. 

  • Palisade Earned The Nickname ‘Toughest Town West Of Chicago’ With Almost Daily Mock Fights

    As word spread east of the raucous events taking place in Palisade, the town gained a reputation. Individuals who witnessed gunfights and other terrifying events after stepping off the train to stretch their legs took stories of what they'd seen home with them. Soon, newspapers reported on the "lawlessness" at Palisade, noting street brawls, slayings, and gunplay, completely unaware that it was was staged.

    Called "the toughest town west of Chicago," Palisade benefited from the characterization. As more and more individuals sought out the Wild West experience, tourists flocked to Palisade to experience what they'd only heard tale of or read about in dime novels.

  • The Hoax Lasted Three Profitable Years
    Photo: Alfred A. Hart / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Hoax Lasted Three Profitable Years

    Staged duels began in Palisade in autumn 1876. Founded less than a decade earlier as a stop along the Central Pacific Railroad, the town was an active transportation hub.

    Countless people traveling between San Francisco and Chicago were greeted by some sort of Wild West event upon arrival. The town may have staged over a thousand performances for gape-mouthed visitors. As passers-through recounted what they saw, the hoax perpetuated and Palisade's reputation grew. 

  • Many Types of Events Were Performed, From Native American Attacks To Hangings

    Hoax participants got creative with how they met visitors to Palisade. Sometimes they put on straightforward duels, but bank robberies, pretend-hangings, and fake Native American incursions were also known to take place. On occasion, Native Americans would participate:

    For a reasonable compensation, [Native Americans] would submit to being bound hand and foot and laid on the platform during the stay of the train, and around their prostrate bodies a guard of citizens, armed with immense revolvers, long rifles and blood thirsty bowie knives, would march with martial mein...

    At other times, "shot-guns and revolvers were loaded with powder - ball omitted - and, as soon as the platform was filled with emigrants seeking exercise and information, a desperate rencontre, provided by some drunken ruffian, would commence..."