Historically Speaking: How Life Changed in Dodge City Overnight: The Quarantine

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
A cattle quarantine imposed on Dodge City in 1885.

One hundred and thirty-six years ago on March 8, 1885, life changed drastically in Dodge City.

On that date, Dodge City's biggest economic boon abruptly ended with the enactment of a quarantine law prohibiting the introduction of Texas long horn cattle into Kansas and, most importantly, Dodge City.

City fathers and business owners knew there would be no more seasonal visits by the Texas cowboys and their long horns.

For the past 10 or 11 summers, these cattle drives had been the economic mainstay for Dodge City.

However, during this entire period, there had been a threat looming over this mainstay. From the very start of the drives, there was an issue with a tick borne disease called Texas Fever. The hardy long horns were immune, but it was fatal to the local ranchers' cattle.

Early in the drives, a quarantine line was established to prevent the spread to local ranches. As ranching moved west, so did this line. The line cut off cities like Wichita, Abilene and Wellington from cattle coming from Texas.

From 1874 to 1885, this line actually helped Dodge City. It was placed just east of Dodge City making it easternmost point in the region long horns could be shipped back east by rail.

The quarantine didn't apply to cattle once they were loaded onto rail cars.

Most people know how herding helped Dodge City's economy and how the reputation of Dodge City being a wild and wooly town grew during the cattle drive years.

The cowboys put Dodge City on the map as the "wickedest" city in the west.

Towards the end of the cattle drive years, the "wicked" reputation of the area began mellowing as farming and ranching became more prevalent.

Families moved in and churches and schools became more popular than saloons.

By 1885, Texas Fever was a problem for western Kansas ranchers, which prompted the quarantine line to move well west of Dodge to the Kansas-Colorado border.

Other drastic changes came to Dodge City shortly after the quarantine. Adding to the exclusion of long horns, a harsh winter in western Kansas took its toll on the cattle industry. And a series of devastating fires destroyed much of downtown Dodge City.

The settling down of Dodge City was intensified by prohibition finally being imposed in the City. Though a State law in 1880 made Kansas a dry state, this prohibition was ignored in Dodge City and many other places. That changed in 1885 when the State legislature enacted a more enforceable law.

There may have been a direct connection between enforcement of prohibition and the fires which destroyed much of Dodge City. The bars suddenly became "restaurants" and "drug stores," and they were no longer open 24 hours. This left no one awake to put out any fires which ignited during the wee small hours in these establishments.

Taking into account the settling down of the region and disastrous winter, the quarantine law was merely the nail in the coffin of the long horn cattle drives to Dodge City.