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King of boomtowns

Tales of notorious Wheeler...a new kind of old frontier


Editor's note: The following is a reprint of a story published in the Washington Daily News on Sept. 1~ 1936. The author the famed Ernie Pyle, was a roving correspondent for the Scripps-Howard news chain whose columns appeared in some 200 newspapers nationwide.
Pyle's inimitable style rings true in this widely read article, which introduced the legendary boom-town of Wheeler to readers throughout the nation. Pyle later earned fame as a war correspondent reporting from World War II battlefields. His work earned Pyle a Pulitzer Prize in 1944, and led to his death in 1945 under a hail of machine gun fire while reporting from an island in the Pacific.

by Ernie Pyle

Wheeler, Mont.-You have to see the town of Wheeler to believe it.
When you drive through, you think somebody must have set up hand-painted store fronts on both sides of the road, as background for a western movie thriller. But it's real.
Wheeler is today the wildest wild-west town in North America. Except for the autos, it is a genuine throwback to the '80s, to Tombstone and Dodge City and Goldfield.
Wheeler is a slopover from the government-built city at Fort Peck Dam. It is not on government property, hence is free to go its own way. These boomtowns always mushroom up around a big construction project. There are 18 of them around Fort Peck.
They are shantytowns proper. They have such names as New Deal and Delano Heights. Their houses are made of boxes and tin cans and old boards and tar roofing. They look just like Hoover's famous Bonus Army camp of 1932 on the Anacostia Flats.
All except Wheeler. It is the metropolis of the mushroom villages. It has 3,500 people, and real houses and stores. It has 65 little businesses lining either side of the main street. Such places as "Buckhorn Club" and "Rooms-SOC" and just "HOTEL."
It has nearly a thousand homes scattered back behind the main drag. It has half a dozen all-night taverns, and innumerable beer parlors. The taverns open at 8 in the evening and run 'til 6 in the morning.
At night the streets are a melee of drunken men and painted women, as they are called in books. Gambling and liquor by the drink are illegal in Montana. But Wheeler pays no attention. You can sit in a stud game, or keep ordering forty-rod all night.
The taverns don't have floor shows. You just drink and dance. The music goes 'til long after daylight.
You don't have to pay to dance with the girls, but they get a nickel a glass for all the beer and whiskey they induce the boys to buy.
Back behind Wheeler is a separate village where the women of easy virtue live. This town has an unprintable name. Everybody calls it by this name. They say a thousand women have heard the call and drifted in for the easy reapings among the dam workers.
Wheeler is two-and-a-half years old. It started with Fort Peck Dam, when some guy brought in a trailer, built bunks in it, and rented them to dam workers at $4 a week.
Ruby Smith was the first real settler. She started an eating place along the road, and within 30 days the town had sprung up around her almost to its present size.
Ruby now runs the Wheeler Inn, one of the biggest' all-night hot spots. She goes to bed at daylight and gets up late in the afternoon. She's coining the money.
Joe Frazier is the entrepreneur of Wheeler. Twenty years ago he homesteaded a batch of practically
Wheeler's medic kept record for posterity

Editor's note The following article consists of excerpts from an article written by the late C. C. Lull MD., former resident and medic in Wheeler, the most famed boom town to spring up around Fort Peck. These observations offer some blunt insights into life in the most notorious of shantytowns.
The article from which these excerpts are taken is titled "The Last Frontier." There is no evidence that it was ever published.

By C. C. Lull, M.D.
"Montana can no longer pose as the 'wild west,' harboring such characters as Buffalo Bill or Wild Bill Hickok, but it can still claim a frontier, perhaps: the last, not personified by the cowboy, riding into town at full gallop, a ten-gallon hat in one hand and a six-shooter in the other.
"It is contrasted by the modern frontiersman, driving in at a 70-miles-an-hour rate, swinging a whiskey bottle and gripping the meager remains of paycheck just received. This frontier to which I refer is Wheeler, a boomtown of the Fort Peck area.
"Wheeler started with a bang and that's the way will finish. After all is said and done, these people are not here for the pleasures they may derive. The are here for the work they get, to maintain themselves honestly, with the spirit of the pioneer. There were new fields to conquer, new friends to find. Much to do . . . to gain. . . the chance to make worthless land here on the bare Montana knobs. It never did pay its way. Joe Frazier became a barber in Glasgow, 20 miles away. Then God sent Ruby Smith and the Army Engineers, and they say Joe Frazier will come out of it easily with $100,000. He owns all the land Wheeler is built on.
Wheeler won't exist six months after the dam is finished in 1939. So Joe Frazier doesn't try to sell lots. He just rents them. His income, they say, is $2,500 a month.


Wheeler is all wood. There isn't a stone or steel building in town. It has no water system. They have had 16 fires since New Year's. One side of the town has wells. The other side hasn't any. There has been, fortunately, no epidemic.
Prices are typical boomtown prices. Rents aren't bad, but food is high. There is one small wooden church and there are two gospel missions. Quite a few of the boys indulge in holdups.
Motorists on the road, and cashiers behind the cash register, have looked many times down the barrel of a six-shooter. There has been considerable gun-waving, but little pulling of the trigger. The thieves take their swag and beat it. Wheeler has not developed any spectacular individual bad man, such as "Curley Bill" of old Tombstone.
And whereas the cowboys used to get drunk and ride down the main street yelling and shooting up the town, nowadays the process is to get drunk and drive down the main street at 70 miles an hour. They've killed and maimed as many people that way around Wheeler as the tough characters used to with their bullets.
It was the wild criminal driving that finally brought a little law and order to Wheeler. They have a deputy sheriff and two constables now. They don't go to extremes, of course, but they pull in the drunken drivers. They say the two justices of the peace have a very good thing.
Wheeler will be gone in three more years. There may never be another one. Somebody had better record it for posterity, before it's too late. a living for their families, to dare to be dependent upon no one for their support, not even the government.
"The time will come when Wheeler will be but a ghost town of the past . . . the memory of this town and those who lived here will leave indelible marks across the pages of their biographies. To some it has been an obelisk, marking the grave of their ambition-to others, the dawn of success.
Excerpts of Lull's observations concerning various aspects of life in the boomtowns surrounding Fort Peck include:

Reason for writing the article:
"The thing that prompted me to make these notations was occasioned through an acquaintance with a young Englishman whom I knew as 'Curley.' He said, 'Say Doc, ain't this a hell of a place?'
"I asked, 'Why?'
"Well, he answered, 'here we are out where there is nothing but thistles, black widow spiders, ticks, rattlesnakes and heat. We're living in pasteboard boxes and eatin' dirt, with nothin' to do when we're not workin' but guzzle beer and wake up with a headache. Don't you think we're all crazy?'"
"To that, I said, 'Yes, in some instances, but no for most of us.'

Weather

"Winter comes with all the fury of the arctic; fine, blinding snow that drifts very high in the sub-zero weather covers the landscape. Summer comes with its heat, like that of the tropics. Sometimes it rains, accompanied with a wind of 60- or 70-mile velocity, like a tropical hurricane. There are times when this part of Montana seems like a desert, with its hot drifting dust, which completely blocks visibility.
Spring is a welcome relief from the icy cold of winter, and autumn is received with the same welcome, like a bulwark against the torrid heat. These weather conditions are torturous to the people.
"Temperatures range from 61 degrees below zero on Feb.15, 1936 to 114 degrees in July 1936. For intervals as long as five consecutive days, the temperature has remained as low as 50 degrees below zero. This intense, sub-zero weather, of course, paralyzes activity almost completely."
Housing

"People moved in fast and furious, and since the space allotted them in the government reservation area was jammed, the mad scramble to obtain materials to build homes, such as they were, began.
"All the way from one to a dozen persons lived in these houses, usually one or two rooms, which were unsanitary at best. They clustered on the flats of the Missouri, and on the hills overlooking the site of the dam, all overflow from the model town.
"Slab houses, tarpaper shacks and log cabins are the frontier dwellings revived. They constitute an up- to-date Dodge City, Cody or Virginia City, resuscitated, with not a tree. The wooden shacks of old siding, the flimsy pasteboard and dirt roofs, and the converted auto trailers will be sufficient to the last boom through. They will then be abandoned.
"I have attended people with green cottonwood timbers burning in a one-room shack. When it was cold, snow would blow through cracks in the walls and floors, and it was impossible to keep a person warm. Often, there is a fire on one side of the room and two inches of ice on the walls at the other side of the room.
Business

"The metropolis of Wheeler, where the gigantic overflow took place, has a population of 4,700, with 80 stores and business places lined up either side of the highway just a few feet from the government reservations. There, 20 all-night saloons, which dispense unlimited red-eye, some in open defiance of Montana law, may be found. There is also the 'taxi dancer,' who gets a nickel for every glass of beer she can persuade the tired, pleasure-seeking shovel runner or tunnel worker to buy.
Undesirables

"The natural result of this desire for recreation and entertainment when not on shift of work was that these places became a fertile field for the professional gambler and those of questionable reputation, both male and female, who live off the 'sap' and his hard-earned money. Bootlegging became rampant and a 'red-light' district was established.
"There were gamblers, bootleggers, women of questionable income, and the men who associate with them. Professional dancers, grafters, robbers and morphine addicts and not a few wanted by the law sought refuge in this area. As time passed, the better and more substantial citizens became acquainted with each other, casting the influences against these undesirables, and made it too hot for them to remain any longer to plunder on the strange public without detection.
His practice

"The Saturday night spree winds up in a mad 70-mile-an-hour rush down Main Street in an open car, instead of a shooting match, as was Montana's fashion. The result is that many wind up for repair in my office, or in the hospital 16 miles away with a broken leg or broken neck. Some have gone directly to the coroner, who happens to be an undertaker, but most have landed in jail on such occasions.
"Cases I have dealt with involve childbirth, frostbite, suicide attempts, venereal disease, knife and gun wounds, pneumonia, food poisoning, snake bite, spider bite and smallpox, among others.
Many a patient ended up in Dr. Lull's office 'for repair.

Law enforcement...

"Law enforcement was negligible, until recently (1937), for the towns are outside federal jurisdiction and remote from county and state authority. Robberies were frequent, although there was little shooting.
"There is more law enforcement now in Wheeler, represented by two justices of the peace, a deputy sheriff and two constables. It was reckless, drunken driving rather than robberies that brought in these officers. Wild recklessness at the wheel has killed and injured more people than the free hand shooting of the 'bad men' of the old boomtowns.
"The liquor store in Wheeler took in over $2,300 last July 3.1 have seen many men get crazy drunk and not know what they do for a period of several hours; going around in a stupor (often leads to) the most peaceable of the workers wanting to fight.
"Now the worst drunken drivers are hauled before a justice of the peace for a little fining and are often jailed."

updated: 2005-02-11

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