Bigger Than the Circus

Buffalo Bill brought the Wild West to The Dalles in 1902

A promotional poster for the show mentions the role power played in small print on the right. Courtesy Library of Congress

By Rodger Nichols

Buffalo Bill. Courtesy Library of Congress

Electricity first came to The Dalles in July 1888 when The Dalles Electric Light Co., a private corporation, built a wood-burning power generation plant at Seventh and Union streets. It was a limited operation, covering only part of the town and operating only in the evenings.

Electricity wasn’t new to The Dalles in 1902, but the town was exceptionally well lit by two steam-powered generators for one night that August.

The story begins with a buffalo hunter.

Modern understanding of the Wild West—real and imaginary—would not be the same without William Frederick Cody, better known as “Buffalo Bill.” Bill himself was both real and imaginary.

Bill’s father died in 1857 when Bill was 11. He took a job with a freight carrier and rode up and down the length of a wagon train on horseback, delivering messages between drivers and workmen. He later served as a scout for the 7th Cavalry during the Civil War and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery.

Bill’s nickname came from his exploits as a hunter under contract to supply meat for workers on the Pacific Railway. In 18 months, he killed 4,270 buffalo.

All this caught the attention of writer Ned Buntline, who wrote the book “Buffalo Bill, King of the Bordermen,” glamorizing some of Bill’s accomplishments and inventing others. The book sold so well that Ned and other writers spent the 1870s writing sequels, and the character of Buffalo Bill became larger than life.

In 1883, Bill formed Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. It was set up like a circus, but there were no trapeze artists and trained elephants. Visitors found real cowboys fighting stage battles with real Indians, plus real horsemen of South American, Turkish, Arabic, and Mongolian backgrounds demonstrating their cultures’ equestrian styles.

The attraction was a huge success. It toured both the U.S. and Europe, appearing at the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria and the dedication of the Eiffel Tower, and met with Pope Leo XIII.

The Hood River Glacier advertised Buffalo Bill’s show.

On August 25, 1902, Buffalo Bill brought his show to The Dalles.

By that time, the show was down to a science, with covered bleachers and two shows a day: one in the afternoon and the other in the evening. Light for the evening show was provided by two mobile steam-powered generators.

“The enormous double electric dynamos used to illuminate the Wild West performances are well worth inspecting, as a scientific and mechanical triumph,” trumpeted an 1898 show program. “They are the largest portable ones ever made.”

Managers arranged tours of the electrical equipment—followed by performances—for visiting groups of electrical engineers and utility company officers at each stop.

An article in The Dalles Chronicle on August 22, 1902, described the setup:

“Seventy-six arc lamps are strung around the enclosure, making it as light as day. The electric power is furnished by Buffalo Bill’s own plant, the engine being shown in the parade. These are double dynamos of 250,000 candle power. It is the largest entertainment arena in the world. Its seating capacity can provide for 16,000 people.”

The same article called arrangements for the show “the most perfect imaginable,” and added, “There is a good deal of wholesome instruction in it, and many a man would never have known who and what the real characters of the Wild West were in the old days had it not been for the experience, energy, and industry of Buffalo Bill.”

But all that candlepower wasn’t put to use. On the day of the performance, The Chronicle sang a far less flattering tune.

An ad for the show ran in The Dalles Chronicle in August 1902. Courtesy of The Dalles Chronicle.

“When a man with a reputation of an Indian fighter comes to town and has the extreme nerve to tell us that this is no ‘two-show town’ and springs it on us at a late hour that there’ll be but one performance, and demands that The Chronicle force be on hand or they won’t show at all, that settles it,” wrote the editor. “We don’t dare to dispute his word nor even to hint gently that it’s a low-down trick to disappoint our working people when they fully expected to attend in the evening and many of them will be unable to attend the show at all. It may not be a ‘two-show,’ town, but we’ll just say that if he visits us again, it won’t even be a one-show town.”

Despite the single performance, the show was a raging success. The population of The Dalles was more than 3,500 people at the time, and 10,000 people attended the show. The Chronicle reported that many of them stood from 8 to 11 a.m. along the downtown streets, awaiting the parade that preceded the show.

The wait was worth it, according to the newspaper, which listed entries that included a fife and drum corps, a brass band, and a cowboy band on horseback.

Also, present was a squad of German Hussars, Cossacks from Russia, English cavalry that had served in South Africa, vaqueros from the plains of Mexico, a squad of American rough riders, a detachment of Cubans, a string of Bengal lancers, a big crowd of typical cowboys, a corps of American cavalry and artillery to bring up the rear.

If the single performance didn’t light up the sky with its candlepower, the acts of the show were dazzling enough that the cranky editor was moved to write this assessment:

“In quick succession, the audience witnessed exhibitions of daring horsemanship, scenes of early pioneer life,
the storming of San Juan Hill, the work of a lifesaving crew, some of the finest tumbling and acrobatic feats they have ever seen, and many other thrilling numbers. In short, the performance, which lasted over two hours, gave perfect satisfaction to the majority of the audience, who appreciated the opportunity of witnessing such a famous show in a place the size of The Dalles.”