America’s First Theme Park

Everywhere you go, you can find a theme park of some kind. Six Flags, Disneyworld/Disneyland, Busch Gardens, even Dollywood and Jim Bakker’s ill-fated, short-lived Heritage USA; if you have an interest in something, chances are good to excellent that you can find a theme park built around it somewhere.
The town of Palisade, Nevada is largely forgotten today, but in the 1870’s its citizens made it a forerunner of today’s theme park. At that time, the public was fascinated to the point of obsession with the Wild West, devouring dime novels and newspaper articles about gunslingers, stagecoach bandits, Indian raids and outlaws of every description. People from the East who journeyed westward both hoped and dreaded that they would experience firsthand the kinds of adventures they had read about back home.
Palisade’s citizens decided to capitalize on this fascination by making their town “The Toughest Town in the West,” entertaining the passengers on the trains that stopped briefly in the town and drawing thrill-seekers from the East.
How did they do this? By staging gun battles, of course! The very first “gunfight” took place just before noon, when a train had pulled into Palisade for a ten-minute rest stop.
Frank West, a handsome cowboy from a nearby ranch, played the good guy. The bad guy was played by a well-liked, very religious man named Alvin “Dandy” Kittleby, who happened to look suitably villainous. Just as the train pulled to a stop, Dandy began walking down the street toward a saloon. West, about sixty feet away, shouted out “Ya low-down polecat! I’m gonna kill you for what you done to my poor, poor little sister!” With that, he drew his pistol and fired it over Dandy’s head. Dandy promptly fell to the ground, kicking and screaming and acting very convincingly as if he’d been shot.
The train passengers watching the drama were, of course, horrified and titillated. Several ladies fainted, and possibly a few gentlemen as well. Word quickly spread, and the fun was on!
Over the next three years, Palisadians staged over a thousand gunfights, sometimes more than one a day. Knowing as well as anyone that variety is the spice of life, they varied the scenarios they staged. Sometimes it was a duel, sometimes a bank robbery, other times an Indian massacre, with real Shoshoni Indians on horseback. Those townsfolk not directly appearing in the performances were kept busy manufacturing blank cartridges and procuring steer’s blood from the local slaughterhouse.
Nearly everyone within a hundred miles of Palisade was in on the joke, including the railroads and even the United States Army. But big-city newspapers in San Francisco, New York and Chicago reported the “atrocities” as gospel, and many outraged letters and telegrams were sent demanding that the Army step in and tame the wild town. Of course, this only added to the locals’ fun, since the Army was fully aware of the hoax.
It’s amazing that so many people could keep such a big, wonderful secret for three years. What’s even more amazing is the fact that, during this time period, Palisade was so law-abiding and peaceful that it didn’t even have a sheriff.

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3 Responses to “America’s First Theme Park”

  1. Antoine Says:

    Can anyone tell me where the abandoned fun park pictured in the superb horror film “Carnival of Souls” was located? Utah I think, but I don’t know where exactly. Reply here.

    • ghostscribe Says:

      I just looked it up on Wikipedia. All it says is that the movie was shot in Salt Lake City and Lawrence, Kansas.

      • Antoine Says:

        Yeppers, I did know that, or at least knew part of it was filmed in Utah somewhere; and, having lived in Lawrence a couple times, that was how I first discovered the film long ago. I think the the old metal bridge with which the movie begins is outside Lawrence, or used to be, before being replaced by the inevitable soulless concrete structure.

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