“Every other business a Saloon!”
During the years 1867 to 1871, the frontier town of Ellsworth was full of vice. Gun battles were common, hangings frequent, and gambling and drinking was indulged in all hours of the night. With the coming of the cattle trade from 1871-1875, Ellsworth became the “rip roaring, toughest” cowtown in the west and the population increased to over 2,000. On both sides of the tracks, every other business was a saloon. Nauchville, the tough part of town, was located a half-mile east on the river bottom. This tent city was a conglomeration of brothels, saloons, and gambling joints. Some of the colorful Old West characters who found their way to Ellsworth include George Armstrong Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickock, and Ben and Billy Thompson.
“Hell is in Session”
Ellsworth stated to lure the cattle traffic in 1869 by positioning men at the Arkansas River crossing where they steered the droves toward Ellsworth. In 1871, the Ellsworth Reporter sent a circular to Texas proclaiming the importance of Ellsworth as a cowtown and asserting that Abilene was dying. It worked, making 1873 Ellsworth’s best population year when 220,000 head of longhorn cattle were completed to the south, but Ellsworth had made its reputation. One newspaper of the era said, “As we go to press, hell is still in session in Ellsworth.”
The coming of the railroad was a much anticipated event in Ellsworth. The expectation that Ellsworth would be the major cattle market had brought numerous people to the town.
The town’s first newspaper, the Ellsworth Reporter, sent a circular to Texas in February 1872 proclaiming the importance of Ellsworth as a cowtown and that Abilene was dying. As Ellsworth increased as a cattle market that year, people of all sorts moved with the trade. Gamblers, thieves, gunmen, prostitutes, as well as more respectable businessmen, came to the newest, important cowtown. Nauchville became the shady area 1/2 mile east of town with its brothels, saloons, and gambling joints. Even Drover’s Cottage, a hotel from Abilene, was taken apart and rebuilt in the new cowtown.
The most notable incident of 1873 in Ellsworth was the killing of Sheriff Chauncey B. Whitney. The shooting of the sheriff occurred while he was breaking up a fight on August 15. The fracas involved Ben and Billy Thompson against John Sterling and Happy Jack Morco. The mix of alcohol and poker proved to cause trouble between the two groups. Since Sheriff Whitney had apparently stopped the problems, he and the Thompsons headed into a saloon for a drink. Then, Happy Jack rushed the street with his six shooters out. Billy, both drunk and armed with a shotgun, accidentally shot the sheriff while turning to meet Happy Jack. The Thompsons soon left the area, as did most Texans after difficulties between the cattlemen and townspeople.