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Thread: 19th century Western town layout: myth vs reality

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    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    19th century Western town layout: myth vs reality

    I watched a popular western called “3:10 to Yuma" last night. One of the special features included on the disc was a segment about some of the movie production concerns. An important element of just about any film is set design, and during an interview one of the set designers spoke about how the ‘town’ set was designed. As most of us are aware, “the West” is a body of myths and legends that have been perpetuated and built upon throughout the years via popular literature and films. It occurred to me while watching this segment that many of my (and probably many others’) conceptions about the stereotypical historic western town layout are based upon movie sets. Movie sets, however, are designed around considerations such as providing adequate camera and crew accessibility to areas or visual lanes for shot setups, which may have little bearing on the realities of how 19th century western towns were actually built.

    Every western ever made features a saloon complete with swinging doors in the center of town, and nearby is inevitably a two story hotel (complete with second story railing through which a gunman must inevitably break as he is shot and falls). A bank, a dry goods store, jail, post office, feed store, land office, and rail depot are other typical fixtures found on screen. Almost never see houses 'downtown'! Western studio towns usually depict a single strip, with facades of the aforementioned buildings having zero-foot side setbacks on either side of a dirt road. While measurements are not available to me, my impression is that the central dirt road right-of-way often appears in westerns to be quite wide by modern day standards - perhaps 120 feet from façade to façade. Wooden structures dominate, however, the town bank and the jail are usually depicted as brick buildings.

    How much historic reality is reflected in Hollywood frontier town design? There must necessarily be some kernel of truth to their depiction of the built environment unique to that time and region, or early audiences (westerns were among the first type of films ever produced and in the early days often employed actual ‘cowboys’) would never have connected with the films. But given the ephemeral nature of many western communities that developed around some resource extraction it seems unlikely to me that there would be as many permanent structures as we seem to see. What economic realities, for instance would be involved in constructing a two story brick building in an area not particularly near brick yards? Were brick yards fairly common out west in that era?

    Perhaps some of the planners around here that live, work, or have spent time Out West could provide this hopeless easterner with a clearer picture of where reality ends on screen and the stereotypical myths surrounding 19th century western towns begins.
    Last edited by Maister; 26 Mar 2013 at 8:33 AM.
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    Cyburbian otterpop's avatar
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    Early mining camps, boom towns and towns in their infancy were typically wooden buildings. The false front seen in so many westerns is a fact - for the same reason your boom town floozy painted her face - to put a false front on an otherwise uninteresting structure. There was constant building and rebuilding. The beams made handy places to hang up the bad people.

    Western mining and ranching towns consisted primarily of wooden buildings built close together. As a result, they burned down (and I mean most or all of the town) periodically. Helena burned several times. Which is why the town's fire tower (The Guardian of the Gulch) is a prominent feature in our downtown and its pamplets.

    The center of the early towns would have lots of saloons - often very long and narrow buildings. There would be a hotel or hotels, stores, fraternal buildings. A lot of the stuff you do see in westerns. The outhouses were out back. The churches and the school might be located on the edge of town or housed in a building in town (Bannack, for example, had the school downstrairs and the fraternal building upstairs in the same structure.

    Houses were located on the main street but typically as you came into or were leaving town. The reasons were because of the dust in the summer and the mud in the spring. And because the good ladies did not want to live cheek-to-jowl with the protitutes, gamblers, drunks, etc.

    Western towns were quite more ambitious than shown in westerns. The founders typically platted a grid of streets and blocks, often with no consideration of the terrain. Marysville, MT had platted streets where a goat would have trouble traveling.

    It was often the case that the "good people" segegrated themselves from the "bad element". The term "dead line" was a demarcation separating "moral businesses" from "immoral busiensses". The red light district was a real thing. Prostitutes - from bawdy houses to the low-down cribs - were often restricted to particular parts of a community (early zoning). Helena had a prominent bawdy house downtown until the 1970s. And Wallace, ID, had "red light" bars until the 1990s.

    For reasons of economy, movie makers make their towns more sparse and smaller than actual western communites. Actual towns had buildings pretty close together. Town lots were often 25 feet wide.

    Towns in the West in the 19th century were smoky, smelly, cramped, dirty in the summer and muddy in the spring and winter. In mining camps the stamp mills ran 24-7. The buildings were typically flimsy - miners did not want to spend much time building when they could be digging for gold. The substantial buildings came along after the town had burned a few times and there seemed to be a feeling that the town had permanence.

    Railroad towns were often laid out in a T-shape, with the top portion being the street paralleling the raidroad and the straight part being the town's main street.

    Mormon communites had their own distinct development pattern, as did Southwestern Spanish towns, which were designed by edicts created by the King of Spain.

    There is a kernel of truth to the way real towns were laid out in Westerns, but not a lot. McCabe and Mrs Miller had it pretty much right. Silverado, not at all.
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    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by otterpop View post
    Railroad towns were often laid out in a T-shape, with the top portion being the street paralleling the raidroad and the straight part being the town's main street.
    I did not know that about railroad towns. It's probably next to impossible to exaggerate the importance of the railroad in the development of the west but there were of course many other factors that might influence 'typical' western town development. For instance, you look at a map and you see a lot of towns out west that are named after forts. Do we find different development patterns in these communities? How about towns in the southwest with significant hispanic populations - were central plazas with a church on one end, for instance, ever actually a recurrant theme?
    People will miss that it once meant something to be Southern or Midwestern. It doesn't mean much now, except for the climate. The question, “Where are you from?” doesn't lead to anything odd or interesting. They live somewhere near a Gap store, and what else do you need to know? - Garrison Keillor

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    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Most of the military outposts were located separate from the town site, and the military did not generally engage in platting communities. The influence thay had may be more on things like military roads (which often followed earlier "Indian trails"), or patronage of military personnel as a factor in teh community's growth.

    Mining towns are particularly interesting to me. Many of these are located in steep, narrow valleys. There are often few roads, and these are not laid out in a grid, but meander along a river or ridge or other feature. It is not uncommon to find mine shafts in backyards. The buildings are a mix of log or frame shacks, small victorians, false front commercial buildings, barns or other outbuildings, and an occassional brick building. Metal roofing and siding were not uncommon. Larger mining structures are typically a little further from town.

    Some places to check out are Bodie, California, and St. Elmo and Victor, in Colorado.

    Towns on the plains tend to be your railroad communities, laid out in a grid as otterpop described.
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    Cyburbian otterpop's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Maister View post
    I did not know that about railroad towns. It's probably next to impossible to exaggerate the importance of the railroad in the development of the west but there were of course many other factors that might influence 'typical' western town development. For instance, you look at a map and you see a lot of towns out west that are named after forts. Do we find different development patterns in these communities? How about towns in the southwest with significant hispanic populations - were central plazas with a church on one end, for instance, ever actually a recurrant theme?
    There is a great book on communies in the West - True West - that describes the unique aspects of physical aspects of community development in the West.

    As far as fort towns, it depends on what kind of fort it was. Trading forts, like Fort Benton, MT, developed like riverside cities. The fort was surrounded by walls and the town grew up outside of it. Military forts, usually did not have walls (despite what you see in Westerns). and were places outside of towns, remaining separate from the towns. The town usually grew and included the fort (Fort Missoula, for example). But most forts were moved or just died and often were recontructed as a historical site (Fort Bridger and Fort Hall). Fort Bridger was a stop on the California and Oregon trails. There is a town called Fort Bridger but it grew up as a supply site for the Mormon migration in the 1840s and 1850s.

    I cannot discuss the Spanish influence very well. I am most familiar with the Anglo Western development, especially mining towns and cow towns.
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    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    I think Otterpop covered pretty much anything I had to add. Except this:

    I recently finished a bunch of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books with my kids (Little House on the Prairie, etc.) and the second to last in the series, Little Town on the Prairie, is set in South Dakota in the railroad town of De Smet. The family moves there as it is being built and there is a great description of what this process looks and feels like over the months that they live in a small shanty there. Later they move to a claim outside of town.

    Even at the end of the previous book, The House at Plum Creek, Pa takes a job as the man who pays the workers building another railroad settlement and they almost string him up on payday.

    Anyway, very good descriptions of what building a railroad town in the West was like at that time. A town full of rough men building hard, playing hard. The small owner speculators (including Pa) who build homes or commercial spaces and wait for new arrivals and buyers. The rush of people moving to the new town and the stampede to stake claims (and claim jumpers who kill a man to take his plot). Although fictionalized to some extent, these books were based on her real experiences as a girl growing up in these places, so I think we can take much of this as pretty accurate accounts of the times. And the writing gets better as you progress through the books. I found the first ones a little tedious.
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    Cyburbian TexanOkie's avatar
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    Most Oklahoma towns that were settled in the land runs were pre-surveyed into blocks based on sections of Township and Range. Many went from 0 to upwards of 5,000 population literally in one day, and then remained tent cities until the local branch of the General Land Office could file all claims and the locals could explore their local resources for solid building materials. Still, a lot of people lived in tents for years afterward, even in Oklahoma City, which was settled by over 10,000 people in the first 48 hours of The Land Run (capital letters = April 22, 1889 land run for unassigned central Indian Territory lands).

    P.S. If anyone's ever traveling through central Oklahoma, they should stop in Guthrie, about 30 miles north of Oklahoma City on I-35. It was the first territory and state capital and has, in my opinion, the best preserved full western Victorian downtown in the United States. The entire original incorporated area is a National Historic Landmark.

    P.P.S. A lot of times the main streets were incredibly wide so that wagons could circle around without leaving town, especially in cattle towns like Oklahoma City and Abilene, KS.

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    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by TexanOkie View post
    P.P.S. A lot of times the main streets were incredibly wide so that wagons could circle around without leaving town, especially in cattle towns like Oklahoma City and Abilene, KS.
    That is also typical of Mormon-settled or influenced towns. Many Utah towns have incredibly wide streets even though those areas pre-date the Ginormous Beast Vehicle Age. Farmington New Mexico also has this feature in their old downtown for the same reason. Another common feature to Mormon towns were irrigation ditches that ran parallel to the street along the shoulder. The resulting series of tiny driveway bridges to ford this small ditch can look pretty cool in a well-restored Mormon plan streetscape. Very quaint.
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    Old Street Design

    Quote Originally posted by wahday View post
    Many Utah towns have incredibly wide streets even though those areas pre-date the Ginormous Beast Vehicle Age.
    Here in Taylor TX the older streets near downtown were built at 100' wide to accomodate the distance it took a horse to turn around, probably while pulling a wagon or carriage. Cities in other states I have lived in do not seem to have this characteristic.

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    Cyburbian Plus
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    Found this -
    The West the Railroads Made: http://stories.washingtonhistory.org/railroads/
    Click on Landscape

    Another important factor: Cold Beer Flows West in Refrigerated Cars
    http://stories.washingtonhistory.org...FlowsWest.aspx


    Other finds include -
    The Iron Horse: the impact of the railroads on 19th century American society
    16/30 (IV) Colonizing the West: Railroad Towns
    http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/E/ironhorse/ironhorse16.htm
    Last edited by JNA; 21 Jun 2008 at 10:04 PM.
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    social segregation and fortress america in the old west, pretty interesting.

    I went to Denver to visit my brother recently and my fiancee and I drove west out of Denver on the interstate (I-40?), and we came across a collection of old-mining towns. Silverplume still is kept as it was in the 1870's(?) complete with the rock-walled 10x10 jailhouse, flimsy wooden structures, and dirt/mud/rock streets. A few miles futher west is Georgetown, a great example of 19th century silver minin boomtown. There are extravangant hotels (the Paris) and a fine colection of stone buildings.

    If anybody who is interested in this area, and you're ever in Denver, I would recommend taking a trip out to Silverplume

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    Scholarly information on Urban Development of the American West

    A quick search turned up one resource of interest regarding urban development in the American West.

    Reps, John William.
    Cities of the American West :a history of frontier urban planning /
    Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, c1979.
    xii, 827 p., 32 [i.e. 16] leaves of plates : ill. ; 23 x 27 cm.
    ISBN: 0691046484

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    Cyburbian mgk920's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by johnelsden View post
    Here in Taylor TX the older streets near downtown were built at 100' wide to accomodate the distance it took a horse to turn around, probably while pulling a wagon or carriage. Cities in other states I have lived in do not seem to have this characteristic.
    Very interesting, College Ave here in downtown Appleton, WI is also much wider than all of the rest of the streets in the central Appleton area (100 vs 66 apostrophes), likely for the same reason. The area was first settled and laid out in the late 1830s/early 1840s, with the City of Appleton itself being incorporated after the amalgamation of three prior villages with an area of surrounding unincorporated land in 1857.

    Mike

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    That's not far from the truth

    I grew up in Western Canada, which was settled about 20 years later than the American West, and some of the towns I grew up near have appeared in Hollywood westerns. Many Hollywood movies are shot in Canada because it's cheaper, and who's going to know when the towns look just like the towns on the other side of the 49th parallel. It's also cheaper to use an existing ghost town than build a new set, so some of the towns you think are sets are actually real towns. The extras playing townspeople are actually real townspeople. You think it's fake, but actually it's real, except that in Canada they had few guns.

    Virtually every community in Western Canada that was created after 1870 was directly created by the rail companies. One railroad, the Grand Trunk Pacific, named the towns along its railroad line in alphabetical order from east to west. The first town started with A, the second with B, the third with C, etc. After they got to Z, they started over at A again.

    The towns were built much the same way as movie sets - very fast, using wood, without much attention to detail. After the town burned down once or twice, somebody set up a brickwork, and they started building the more substantial buildings like the town hall, banks and post offices out of brick.

    In a typical town, the railroad came along and set up a station where there was absolutely nothing. They then laid out streets, usually using the "T" layout. Main street terminated at the railroad station, and was 100 feet wide so people could angle-park a team and wagon each side. All the businesses set up shop on Main Street because that was where the traffic was. The lots were typically 25 feet wide, because that was the minimum practical width of a building. Secondary streets were commonly 66 feet wide because that was the length of a surveyor's chain. Railway Avenue was built parallel to the railroad tracks, at right angles to Main Street. 1st Avenue, 2nd Avenue, etc. were built parallel to Railway Avenue, and more streets were built parallel to Main Street - often called 1st Street East, 1st St West, etc.

    Then, after the business district was laid out the residential streets were laid out - further from downtown because nobody wanted to live too close to all the noise and commotion. The streets there were much narrower because nobody wanted to angle park a team and wagon in front of their house. The lots were still 25 feet wide because that was about the minimum size you could build a house on.

    Although the first streets were laid out at right angles and parallel to the railroad tracks, the railroad was typically not exactly north-south or east-west. After the town grew a bit, it collided with the north-south, east-west layout of the township and range survey system. At that point, they realized they had goofed, and redirected the streets to align with the survey grid. This caused a distinct break in the street system in many towns.

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    I am more interested in what businesses could be found in an 'Old West" town around 1870 and what other businesses were they typically located next to? For example:

    Was the hotel simply the second floor of the saloon? Or was it located next door or even down the street?

    Was the Marshall's or Sheriff's office in the Town Hall or was it in a separate building or even in the jail itself as seen in the western movies.

    One thing I do know, the doors on the saloon were just like the doors on any other business. They were just regular doors. After you enter the saloon, you will see the typical saloon door style (popularized by Hollywood), separating the drinking area from the parlor or other area. Saloons did not typically stay open 24/7 and they had to lock up just like any other business. The swinging saloon doors would not have accomplished that goal.

    Also, there is no evidence of there ever being a show-down type gunfight in the streets as depicted in the movies. They typically did it back then the same way they do it today . . . The Drive-by, (modified for the times). They would ride out to your ranch or cabin, shack, or tent and they would gun you down right there. No call out, no warning. Just ride up, walk in, and start shooting. Very little if anything was said before the gunfire. Kind of like the Mafia of Al Capone's day. The Mafia would bust down the door of the offender and blow his brains out (literally), with a sawed-off, 12 gauge shotgun while he was eating dinner with his family. To prevent witnesses, many times the family members would meet the same fate.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian otterpop's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Ben Cartwright View post
    I am more interested in what businesses could be found in an 'Old West" town around 1870 and what other businesses were they typically located next to? For example:

    Was the hotel simply the second floor of the saloon? Or was it located next door or even down the street?

    Was the Marshall's or Sheriff's office in the Town Hall or was it in a separate building or even in the jail itself as seen in the western movies.

    One thing I do know, the doors on the saloon were just like the doors on any other business. They were just regular doors. After you enter the saloon, you will see the typical saloon door style (popularized by Hollywood), separating the drinking area from the parlor or other area. Saloons did not typically stay open 24/7 and they had to lock up just like any other business. The swinging saloon doors would not have accomplished that goal.

    Also, there is no evidence of there ever being a show-down type gunfight in the streets as depicted in the movies. They typically did it back then the same way they do it today . . . The Drive-by, (modified for the times). They would ride out to your ranch or cabin, shack, or tent and they would gun you down right there. No call out, no warning. Just ride up, walk in, and start shooting. Very little if anything was said before the gunfire. Kind of like the Mafia of Al Capone's day. The Mafia would bust down the door of the offender and blow his brains out (literally), with a sawed-off, 12 gauge shotgun while he was eating dinner with his family. To prevent witnesses, many times the family members would meet the same fate.

    Ben,

    As far as there being no evidence of the traditional showdown type gunfight that is not true. Wild Bill Hickok and Dave Tutt had a shootout in the town square of Springfield, Mo. Just like in the movies, they faced each other off over a dispute about Tutt having taken Wild Bill's watch as a gambling debt and parading around with it (also there was bad blood due to them loving the same woman). They faced off and Tutt fired first, missing. Wild Bill killed him with one shot at a distance of over 200 feet (a phenomental accomplishment today, astounding in the days of cap and ball pistols.)

    The gunfight at the OK Corral (though it actually occurred in an alley by Fly' Photography Studio) was like in the movies, in that the two opposing parties faced off, about twenty feet apart and shot it out. The Earps and Doc Holliday were there to disarm the Cowboys (as they were called), who were carrying guns in violation of a town ordinance. Both parties had holstered guns, or guns in their coat pockets, or guns on their horses. Likely, Doc Holliday cocked his shotgun, which started the shooting and after that it was "Saturday Night in Souix City." Only Ike Clanton and Wyatt Earp escaped without injury (Ike because he ran away.)

    One last example would be the gunfight between Luke Short and Jim Courtright, where the two men met on the street and drew on one another. By a fluke, Short shot off Courtright's thumb and Short killed him before Courtright could do a border switch to his left hand.

    A standup shoot-out was very rare, but not unheard off.

    As far as the location of businesses, Old West towns often had a primitive form of zoning. Cowtowns often had a "deadline." - a demarcation separating the rowdy element from the good people of the town. A cowboy misbehaving on the wrong side of the deadline was likely to get hit on the head with the barrel of a lawman's gun and dragged to jail. Or if he gave the lawman any guff, he might end up shot dead. There was often a sign or signs posted warning the cowboys where they should not go.

    The town's "soiled doves" were kept apart from the respectable women. They would often have separate seating in the theaters (even in some cases, with drapes or screening so the ladies would not have to look at the bad girls). In some cases the prostitutes could only go on the street at certain hours of the day to do their shopping. Merchants liked their business - the hookers were lavish spenders and a steady flow of cash. The prostitutes were the conduit that got the cowboys' and miners' cash into the town's respectable economy - the milliner, general store, dressmaker, etc - benefitted from their trade.

    Cathouses were kept off the main street, usually, but not too far. Often on a parallel street or an intersecting street. This is not always the case. For many years in downtwon Helena there were cathouses. Big Dorothy's closed in the 1970s.

    Hotels sometimes had saloons, though usually not. If a saloon had room upstairs it was usually for adult entertainment. Hotels and boarding houses were mostly for the "respectable" folks. The cowboys blew their money in the saloons and brothels. They weren't apt to rent a room. They could sleep in the livery's hay, or on the prairie, or, if they had a really good evening, in the town jail.

    The jail was often just a log cabin with bars on the windows, especially in a boom town. Nothing so comfortable as Sheriff Coffee's jail. A town was well-established before it usually had municipal buildings. A town would have a jail, a firehouse, and a building or room to hold municipal court (towns and lawmen relied on fines for revenue.)

    To burst a common mistake in movies and TV about westerns. Lawmen (marshals, sheriffs and especially federal marshals) depended on tax collection (part of a county sheriff's job and his most lucrative duty), fines, and rewards. Good ole Matt Dillon would not have turned down any rewards - he would have gotten no salary whatsoever prior to 1894 and would have worked for rewards and fines. Also Matt would have been a deputy U.S. Marshal. A U.S. Marshal was a political appointee who was an adminstrator in the capital and did little or no actual law enforcement.

    A lawmen might get a weekly salary, but he also counted on getting paid per arrest (about a dollar or a dollar and a half) and collecting on rewards. The reason rewards for wanted criminals were offered was not to encourage citizens to turn the felons in or to encourage bounty hunters. It was to give the lawmen incentive to spend those long, hard hours on the trail and face the danger of capturing a Jesse James or Bill Doolin.
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    Thanks for the help

    I know this is an old thread, and I was not the person asking for help, but thanks. I am working on a game of sorts. A 3d interactive western town, or ghost town with a game engine. I found this thread after googling trying to find information about western towns. Let me know if anybody would like to help me design this. Thanks.

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    Cyburbian
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    Don: There is this fascinating book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/377...=ATVPDKIKX0DER

    Very graphic, should be what you are looking for.

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    I know I am bringing this post from the dead again but I want to greatly appreciate all the knowledge in this thread. I am also making a game, a city building game (think Sim city) but I want to start in the wild west Era so I was doing research on towns of the period. This thread Has more info than I could find on most of the websites I went to, and the link to the Amazon book was great I ordered one.

    The posts on Mormon towns are interesting. I currently live in Utah and unfortunately right now the trend is to tear everything down that's old and build new, so a lot of those historical features have been lost and more are lost everyday, pretty much if it's not a landmark it gets tore down which is sad.

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    Recreating a wild west town in a UK theme park

    This is an excellent thread. I'm researching old wild west towns in an attempt to recreate something that is authentic within a UK theme park.

    Can anyone suggest a good resource for images, building plans, specs etc.. Many thanks in advance.

  21. #21
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Screams View post
    This is an excellent thread. I'm researching old wild west towns in an attempt to recreate something that is authentic within a UK theme park.

    Can anyone suggest a good resource for images, building plans, specs etc.. Many thanks in advance.
    You might benefit from researching historical maps and images of a sample of western communities fitting the profile of what you want to create. In the US, state historical societies often have collections of historical images including the postcard shots of "main street" that were very common in the late 1800's/early 1900's. You might also find Sanborn Maps from that time frame. These maps were drawn for insurance purposes and note the location and construction of every building, describing the uses within. They would be a good source for helping to understand spatial relationships and arrangements of uses.
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