Fans of the old TV show “Gunsmoke” might be surprised to hear that the Long Branch Saloon, partially and then fully owned by Miss Kitty, actually existed in the late 1800s. Not only was the Saloon real, but it played an integral part in Kansas’ gambling history–and was the centerpiece to many Dodge City shenanigans.
Some of the most infamous gunslingers of western folklore drank beers and gambled at the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City. Some of the lawmen and cowboys that walked the halls at the Long Branch Saloon were:
- Wyatt Earp
- Bat Masterson
- Bill Tilghman
- Charlie Basset
- Doc Holliday
As Kansas sports betting will soon be signed into law by Gov. Kelly, it’s nice to look back to see how gambling got its start. In this edition of the history of gambling in Kansas, our story begins with the construction of the Long Branch Saloon.
How (we think) the Long Branch Saloon was built
Throughout the mid-late 1800s, Dodge City’s reputation as a ‘lawless’ and ‘gun slinging’ town began to spread. Quickly, it became a place where cowboys, drifters, and soldiers all traveled to escape the confines of the law.
It is during the early, lawless days of Dodge City that the Long Branch Saloon is rumored to have been built. As the story is told, a few men were outside playing a ball game during a hot, dry Kansas day. Wandering soldiers stumbled upon the group of men, and challenged them to a game.
In typical Dodge City fashion, a bet was put on the line. If the soldiers lost, they would have to provide the materials to build a saloon in Dodge City. Well, fortunately for everyone involved, the soldiers lost the game and paid-up their end of the bet.
Soon, the Long Branch Saloon was built, rumored to be in 1874. And the residents of Dodge City finally had a place to escape the heat and drink until their heart’s (or liver’s) content.
The early days of the Long Branch Saloon
Before 1878, the Long Branch Saloon wasn’t the Long Branch Saloon. The popular drinking and gambling spot didn’t get its name until 1878 when a pair of rich ranchers bought and renamed the local watering hole.
The buying group was made up of Chalkley Beeson and William Harris. Harris granted the Saloon with its first name, the Long Branch Saloon, a tribute to his hometown of Long Branch, New Jersey. Harris and Beeson were a true dynamic duo when it came to owning and running the Long Branch Saloon.
Beeson provided the entertainment, playing with his “Cowboy Band” almost every night at the Saloon. Beeson and his band even went on to play at Benjamin Harrison’s Presidential Inauguration in 1889.
While Beeson was providing the entertainment, Harris was providing the REAL entertainment–the gambling. William Harris had a deep reputation as a gambler, but also as a gentleman. Harris was respected by the town and often ran different gambling games at the Long Branch Saloon to drive-in patrons.
Some of the most popular games at the Long Branch Saloon, under Harris’ supervision, were:
Gambling was technically illegal in Dodge City at this time. So the fines imposed on the Long Branch Saloon were seen as a cost of doing business. Lawmen like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson would often be seen in the Saloon playing these games themselves. And the fines paid by the Saloon likely funded their salaries.
The most infamous shooting in Long Branch history
While things were rowdy, happenings at the Long Branch Saloon remained as a sort of “controlled chaos” for many years. However, things seemed to have tipped completely out of hand on Apr. 5, 1879, when the infamous gunfight between Frank Loving and Levi Richardson broke out inside of the Long Branch Saloon.
Thanks to the Kansas Historical Society, we have a record of the fight through newspaper articles from the Ford County Globe.
The Ford County Globe described Richardson as a man who was “well-liked in many respects,” yet had “cultivated habits of bold and daring, which are always likley to get a man in trouble.”
Loving, on the other hand, was described as “A man of who we know but very little. He is a gambler by profession; not much of a rowdy, but more of the cool and desperate order, when he has a killing on hand.”
The article describes the fight as one that might have been avoided “if either had possessed a desire to do so.” Unfortunately, neither man did–and after a reported 11 shots were fired (six by Loving and five by Richardson) Levi Richardson was fatally wounded and died at the Saloon.
Loving miraculously avoided death, somehow making it out (which started with the two standing just inches from each other) with just a scratched hand.
What started the shootout at the Saloon?
We are unsure what started the fight–some believe it was over a game gone wrong and others believe it was over a woman. But, thanks to Adam Jackson, the Saloon’s bartender, we have a first-hand account of the tale.
“Loving sat down on the hazard table. Richardson came and sat near him on the same table. Then Loving got up, making some remark to Richardson, could not understand what it was…Richardson pulled his pistol first, and Loving also drew a pistol. Three or four shots were fired when Richardson fell by the billiard table. Richardson did not fire after he fell. He fell on his hands and knees.”Adam Jackson, Long Branch Saloon bartender. Ford County Globe
The post-gunfight era
Just a few years after the infamous gunfight, Beeson sold his share of the saloon to one Luke Short. Short was a man with a murky reputation, but had a history with the lawmen of Dodge City–he used to run around with Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson in Tombstone, Kansas.
Short’s time as the owner was brief–but that does not mean it wasn’t drama-filled.
Photo by Associated Press