On many of the present day movie and TV studio back lot tours, where western movies are made, there is often an elaborate shootout staged of some kind. Fake robberies and shootouts have been known to also take place at studios with tours offering a ride on an old west steam engine. Lots of fun and thrills for the tourists.
But the idea is not new, much as a person might want to think so. It really wasn’t a 20th century invention.
Back in the early 1870s in Eureka County, when the little railroad town of Palisade was in full bloom, having a sizable population and being on the main east-west line of the Union Pacific following the opening of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the local townspeople came up with an elaborate hoax, probably in an attempt to boost tourism.
Trains don’t stop there anymore, but back when this story takes place, nearly all of them did.
Whenever a passenger train arrived, most notably the Overland Limited, the residents were said to stage rampant gunfights and bank robberies. Nobody was privy to knowledge of the hoax except the locals.
In reality, crime in Palisade was low and the town didn’t even have a sheriff. But it was a busy place in those early days. Nevada historian, the late Dan Ashbaugh notes W.L. Pritchard had more than 500 wagons and 2,000 animals hauling supplies to Eureka and other southern mining centers and bringing back ore for shipment on the railroad before the Eureka-Palisade line was completed in 1875.
How the idea of the fake shootouts to entertain the train passengers came about is not known for certain. Some historians have written that a train conductor once mentioned to a Palisade resident that his passengers were disappointed to see the Wild West wasn’t like what they had read about in dime novels back east. The townspeople decided to give the greenhorns what they wanted.
Author Karen Hill wrote in an article in 2012, “They recruited members of the community, the railroad workers, and even a local Indian tribe to join in. Over the next three years, the locals thrilled travelers with a thousand fake gunfights, using blanks and gallons of beef blood from a local slaughterhouse.”
When the San Francisco-bound or Chicago-bound Overland Limited pulled into town, it usually made a lengthy stop for passengers to get out, stretch their legs, pick up sandwiches at the station lunchroom or get a couple of quick belts in one of the close-by saloons.
Ashbaugh writes that when all the passengers were off, it was the signal for the fun to start. “Shooting commenced in all directions, ‘victims’ falling everywhere…Passengers screamed with terror and ran for safe spots,” even diving under the train cars, if necessary.
Strangely enough, all of the casualties were local folks, not a single tenderfoot or railroad employee was ever shot or injured in the hail of bullets.
Ashbaugh also mentions that, “None of the passengers ever seemed to notice that the victims were quickly carried over to Johnson’s Saloon, where they miraculously recovered and could watch the last act.” One has to wonder, did the townspeople take turns at playing the victim at given times?
The Shoshone tribe, centuries old inhabitants of a local bend in the Humboldt River, eventually decided they want to get in on the fun, too. So they were also included in the drama. At a pre-arranged signal, the war-painted Natives burst upon the scene, stabbing and scalping victims with “enthusiastic abandon.”
Horrified passengers rushed back to the safety of the railcars and the train left, maybe a little behind schedule, maybe not. Meantime, the Palisade folks laughed merrily over their exploits with maybe a drink or two, and thought up more ways to improve the “community production.” What time is the next train due?