Living in a Dark Dakota: On the Streets of the Wickedest City

Living in a Dark Dakota: On the Streets of the Wickedest City

Re-imagining the historic Murderer’s Gulch, Shane Balkowitsch col- laborated with local artists and actors to bring a bit of life to that local history. Dustin White photo

Dustin White

History is a work in progress. As new pieces of information are discovered, the past continues to be written and rewritten. 

The tent cities
With the Northern Pacific Railroad pushing westward, land speculators were busy ahead of the track, setting up townsites, with the hope that the railway would be forced to build the route through their newly acquired land. 

After the Northern Pacific reached Fargo, attention focused on the crossing at the Missouri River. Leading the race was a John Jackman, who had been with the surveying party, and knew the exact location of the proposed crossing. On his heels were representatives of the Puget Sound Company, who were closely tied to the Northern Pacific. 

Having made the rush to the Missouri River with a party of four others, Jackman and his group stuck their claim on a large swath of land, forcing the Puget Sound Company completely away from the area. 

Other townsites were also developed. Observing the construction of Camp Greene, which would soon be occupied by land surveyors, a crossing was assumed to have been planned at the mouth of the Heart River. 

On the other side of the river, at a place called “Pleasant Point,” or as others knew it, “Whiskey Point,” because the liquor was so easily acquired, a little settlement called Carleton City sprouted. Soon, more than a dozen saloons were said to have speckled the site, with nearly as many “houses of ill-repute.”

For the command at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Carleton City was a scourge. Just a short trip from the fort, soldiers found the vices they sought, which would eventually lead to larger problems for the community as a whole. 

Another townsite had also sprouted up, hoping to cash in on the Northern Pacific’s Missouri crossing. Yet, as with the site near Camp Greene, it was a bluff. 

Unlike the other sites though, Dr. Walter Burleigh was brought to the area by the railroad. Having been awarded a contract to grade the railroad, stretching from 50 miles east of Bismarck, up to the river, Burleigh sought to capitalize on his insider knowledge. 

Quickly snatching up the land near the area he was grading, Burleigh established the town of Burleighton, which was approximately near the present day N.D. State Penitentiary. To help with the land grab, Burleigh called in the help of both his family and friends, as well as those working for him. 

Upset with Burleigh’s tactics, and becoming aware that the lowland flats would flood each spring, the Northern Pacific made the decision to abandon the site, and eventually, crossing would be made at the bluffs where it presently is set. 

Railway and murder
As the railway was approaching the banks for the Missouri, the community that would become known as Bismarck was beginning to grow. Knowing that there would be money once the Northern Pacific finally reached the city, the town began to boom. 

However, while the railroad was still a ways off, Bismarck (or Edwinton as it was known), served as a riverboat port, jumping off place for the gold rush and the nearest urban center for Fort Abraham Lincoln. With outlaw types being attracted by each endeavor, the fledgling city had its hands full. 

On a small section of Fourth Street, a one block section between Broadway and Main Street, which would become known as Bloody Fourth or Murderer’s Gulch, saloons, gambling halls and bawdy houses quickly began operating. 

“No respectable woman would ever walk down that street,” Linda Slaughter wrote in her memories published in The Bismarck Tribune in 1894.

Slaughter would witness first hand the troubles that “Murderer’s Gulch” became known for. In 1873, while she was looking out of the window of her home, she noticed an elderly man named Collins, as well as a gambler who had arrived in town shortly before, known as Shang. Pursuing them was an Edward Hayes. 

Shots fired, a full out battle would ensue. Coming to the rescue of Collins and Shang, Dave Mullen, another gambler, entered into the shoot out, forcing Hayes to seek refuge in Jack White’s saloon. 

There, Hayes would receive help from a woman named Big Marie, who gave him a shotgun to defend himself. 

Slaughter doesn’t report what the final outcome of the battle, but Collins was said to have suffered neck wounds, which ended up being fatal. Hayes survived, but later was killed by Indians. 

Arrests were seldom made in such incidents, as even formal law avoided Murder Gulch. When Judge Barnes was called to hold court in a building on the street, he refused, because of the record of blood.

Custer’s Fault
Disliking George Custer, Slaughter would set part of the blame on him. Seeing a scoundrel in the fort’s commander, Slaughter’s major run in with Custer occurred over the proper manner to distribute mail. 

The objection from Slaughter came when the Northern Pacific ceased to run in 1873, and thus mail delivery switched from the railway to Custer’s mail carriers. 

Wanting to have additional control over the mail, Custer had made the decision to first distribute the mail at Fort Lincoln, and then send rest of it off to Bismarck, to the care of Slaughter. With only one mail key in the area, Custer had a request made of Slaughter to borrow the key, which she initially allowed. 

It was a mistake Slaughter wouldn’t make again. After Custer had distributed the mail at the fort, the rest was sent to Slaughter in a “hopeless jumble of letters.” With Slaughter now keeping the mail key, Custer decided to cut open the mail sacks, an offense that angered Slaughter, and was also illegal. 

Slaughter would report Custer to the postal authorities in Washington, who contacted General Phil Sheridan. Sheridan laughed it off, but eventually, Slaughter would clear up the problem with the aid of General Hazen. 

From that time forward, Slaughter would have a problem with Custer, which became apparent in her own writing. 

Additional Troubles
The Bismarck Tribune, and their founder, Col. Clement Lounsberry, would have their run ins with Murderer’s Gulch as well. 

Mullen, and his partner, Jack O’Neil, who operated a dancehall on Fourth Street, were regular advertisers in the early editions of the Tribune. 

The advertisements would bring upon them the critical attention of Lounsberry, and he would urge the formation of a vigilante committee to deal with these lawless characters, as the city was missing any civil organization. 

Mullen and O’Neil, not thrilled with what Lounsberry was printing, approached him at his Tribune office. Threatening to do some shooting over Lounsberry’s comments, they would find a man who was unafraid of the two. 

Telling Mullen and O’Neil, that if they wanted to start shooting, they better get quicker, as he had heard bullets fly before. The two would leave the office of Lounsberry, guns still in their holsters. 

Mullen would find his end after a gambler shot and killed a soldier from Fort Abraham Lincoln. Following the gambler, Seventh Cavalry troopers arrived at Mullen and O’Neil’s dancehall, where they were determined to find the killer. 

Refusing to allow the soldiers to enter, Mullen fired at them through his door, and killed one of the soldiers. The rest returned volley, and Mullen laid dead on the floor. An investigation was ordered, but it turned up nothing. It would be one of the cases which finally made the citizens of Bismarck sick of the antics of Bloody Fourth.

With the Northern Pacific going bankrupt in 1873 though, Bismarck would remain the end of the line for the railway, which continued to attract outlaws. 

By 1874, the end of Bloody Fourth was beginning to be insight. 

With vast flooding in the spring of 1874, Carleton City, along with their 15 saloons, were swept away by the river. For some, it was seen as an act of a moral God, but most saw it as a grievous loss. 

Later that year, Alexander McKenzie arrived in Bismarck, and he would serve as the sheriff of Burleigh County from 1874 to 1886. An exceptional time span when considering that the first few sheriffs lasted less than a year each. 

Actively enforcing the law in Bloody Fourth, McKenzie helped clean up the act of the area, with a large support from the community. McKenzie would also cause a series of troubles himself as well, using his authority for his personal good. But under his oversight, the open lawlessness of the area was beginning to be removed. 

In 1882, the Northern Pacific would once again begin to build, and with the $1 million bridge project to span the Missouri, Bismarck no longer was the end of the tracks. With the railway moving west, so did many of the remaining wild west personas. 

That is not to say that such trouble was completely removed, but that it was disbursed to less noticeable places. Into the 1930s, “pleasure palaces” continued to exist on Fourth Street, and throughout the city.