Toughest Town On The Tracks

by M. Ellwanger


Sinful Sidney, toughest town on the tracks, wickedest town in the WEST. These were just some of the names used to describe the town of Sidney, Nebraska.... and with good reason.

In 1867, the Union Pacific Railroad was laying their tracks through western Nebraska to the Wyoming border. Sidney just happened to be the division point and Lodgepole, Brownson and Potter were the local train stations. To protect the workers, supplies and equipment the United States Army stationed a company of infantry here in Sidney as a sub-post of Fort Sedgwick in Colorado.

In 1874, because of its location on the railroad, the Sidney barracks became the supply point for all military and Indian Department supplies destined for points to the north in the Pine Ridge. The following year, gold was discovered in the Black Hills. A railroad connection was needed to bring supplies to the miners and more importantly, to carry gold to the banks on the coast. The trail to Fort Robinson was extended and the Sidney Deadwood Trail was born.

A large number of both failed and successful robberies led to the demand for increased military protection in the region. In 1878, Sidney barracks became Fort Sidney, named after Sidney Dillon, a Union Pacific railroad executive.

Sidney was a small town of 500 residents at the time. Once gold was discovered in the Black Hills, Sidney became a place to stop for travelers on their way to the gold rush. As the railroad came in, so did the people. As many as 80 saloons and numerous gaming halls, brothels lined Front Street, now named Hickory, which is located along the tracks.

Between 1876 - 1881 over 1,000 criminal murders occurred in Sidney. Those were just the ones prosecuted. The crimes here included the largest ever gold robbery in the United States at that time. Vigilantes handled things their own way, hanging 16 of the worst offenders from the courthouse tree. The County Sheriff was known as the crookedest County Sheriff the Old West has ever known. The Molly Macquires, AKA Irish Mafia, controlled the business dealings here in Sidney. We would become the "lynching capital" of Nebraska. The trains wouldn't even stop in Sidney. They stopped a mile outside of town and people rode a wagon into town. 

This was the place legends came to visit. The likes of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill Cody, Butch Cassidy, Walter Reed, Susan B. Anthony and Doc Middleton all made their way through the dusty streets of Sidney Nebraska. In May of 1975, Susan B. Anthony came to the little town of Sidney to lecture on woman's suffrage. 

A few months before Wild Bill Hickok met his end in Deadwood, South Dakota holding a hand of Aces and Eights, he was here in Sidney. Wild Bill Hickock was sitting playing cards on Front Street here in Sidney. Not wanting to be recognized, he had his famous hair tucked under his hat. Winning too many hands in a row he was accused of cheating by two men. Bill didn't take kindly to being called a cheat. As the fight ensued, the hat was knocked to the ground. Only then did the two men know they were in a gun fight with Wild Bill. Needless to say neither were able to tell this story. After the shooting was determined self-defense, Wild Bill was free to leave for Deadwood.

The two men were buried in the Sidney Boot Hill Cemetary. This cemetery is unique for many reasons. One being that it was created for the soldiers at Fort Sidney who were killed in gun battle. But also because also buried there are Indian scouts, business owners, wives, gunslingers, gamblers and dance hall girls and ladies of the evening. All laying side by side.

Boot Hill burials were discontinued in 1894 and eventually this old cemetery became so dilapidated in condition it became a community embarrassment. The American Legion saw to it that it became an issue with the federal government because of the presence of military soldiers from Fort Sidney. Finally the U.S. Army mandated the removal of 21 soldiers buried here. What they found was so much more - 211 bodies -before they stopped excavation when the 21st soldier was found.

On June 24, 1922, Mr. G. H. Austin, of Julesburg, Colorado secured the government contract and the gruesome job of locating the burial sites, digging them up and locating the remains to other cemeteries. Austin came with 15 men. The government also sent Capt. Harry Northcott to oversee this entire project with specific orders for the removal of the graves of the military personal and Pawnee scouts.

He was originally sent to Sidney to exhume the graves of the soldiers and two civilians that were related to the soldiers. Upon his arrival, he immediately saw this to be an impossible task, as very few graves could be positively identified. So he required his workmen to exhume the portion of the cemetery believed to be where the burial ground of the soldiers existed. No soldier was to be left behind. When the word was made public that this old historic cemetery was to be exhumed... And a rather large one at that... It became a newsworthy event of much interest to not only Sidney, but it received national attention.

Identification of the graves was very difficult, and hazy in most cases. The government had ordered all unclaimed bodies to also be removed and relocated to Fort McPherson, Nebraska. Officially, 200 bodies officially remain in a the cemetery. Unofficially the number is much more.

Fort Sidney was decommisioned in 1884. The Fort was sold at auction to settlers in the area in 1899. Only three restored buildings remain: the Commanding Officers quarters, the Powder House and the Officers quarters, which now houses the museum. These are maintained by the Cheyenne County Historical Association.

In April of this year, Sidney will be 150 years old. The celebration will be held Aug. 18-20 downtown in Hickory Square. Speakers, bands, tours, melodrama, car shows and children's activities will be the focus. Camp Lookout will be dedicated and will be the kickoff for the event. People have asked why we have "Sinful Sidney" in the name of the event. We are not saying good honest people didn't settle here. We are saying 150 years ago this is what Sidney Nebraska was known for.