IN its early days, before there were any houses upon its streets, and when the streets themselves were indicated only by the surveyor’s pegs, Boomtown was known as Boom City upon the gorgeous map which heralded its future glory. But cities, like college graduates, grow more modest as they grow old, and hence its present compacter title. Not to afflict the reader with a multitude of geographical details, I will simply say that the Boomtown of to-day is situated in the great Northwest. While it is probably south of the British boundary, it may be above the same ; for there are thousands of our English and Canadian friends whose hearts are so loyal that they would rather be swindled under her majesty’s flag than grow rich on Yankee soil. For a time their opportunities for speculation without expatriation were limited to the city of Winnipeg, in Manitoba, and it is chiefly to this fact that the town owes its celebrated prosperity of 1881 and 1882.
The great Northwest is entered through the gateway of St. Paul. There the traveler first hears of Boomtown, the “Portals of the Sunset,” the “ Favorite of Fortune,” the “ Gem of the Great Golden Northwest,” the “ Loveliest Spot in the Land of Light,” the “ Plucky Pioneers’ Paradise upon the Productive Prairies.” Not only are the allurements and advantages of Boomtown advertised in alliterative prose, but the real-estate man also drops into poetry, and relates how the place has grown : —
To a city strong and hale,
Ere three harvests tell their tale.”
In prospectus this city is the focus of all railroads that are ever to be built, the future capital of the future State, the garden spot of the farmer, the sanitarium of the invalid, the speculator’s paradise, the land of golden grain, where the wheat grows in forests and the oats in impenetrable jungles. Should our arrival in St. Paul be opportune, we learn that an auction sale of Boomtown lots is one of the entertainments of the evening, and we are sadly lacking in the tourist’s proverbial enterprise if we do not attend. Bands of music, inviting us to the scene, play lively tunes, calculated to intoxicate the buyer and loosen the strings of his purse. Like the spies sent out by Moses to report upon the land of Canaan, and who returned bearing between them that famous bunch of grapes from the brook Eshcol, the Boomtown syndicate have also brought with them the products of their land, and challenge Canaan itself to show an equal display of No. 1 hard wheat, tastefully arranged in sheaf and jar; enormous potatoes, each one a dinner in itself; and luscious fruit, which, however, owing to the undeveloped state of the country, is yet in a state of papier maché.
The sales are made by that most loquacious of auctioneers, the “ Marquis of Mud,” who has fairly earned his honorable title. He exhorts the people to catch on to the Boomtown boom, which has surely set in to stay. Then, with the sensitiveness of the true boomer, he corrects himself, and says that this is not a boom at all, but a healthy and regular growth. The people catch on. In the fever of the moment, those buylots who never bought before. Some buy in confidence, and some in fun. Some think that kind of a lottery as good as any other, and some invest for the privilege which it gives them of occasionally putting on the air of a capitalist, and referring, in careless tones, to their real estate up in Boomtown. They buy for that satisfaction which the mere possession of property gives. Where lives the man who has not bought a dog or a dressing-gown, an operahouse or a newspaper, for similar reasons ?
Having purchased his lot, the traveler feels a natural desire to look at it, and proudly stand upon the base of his pyramid of dirt, whose apex is at the centre of the earth, three or four thousand miles away. Since Boomtown is an inland city, and the climate, he has been led to believe, is just wet enough for the farmer and just dry enough for the consumptive, he is greatly shocked to find that his destination is surrounded by a waste of waters. Only the repeated assurance that this is an exceptionally moist spring restores confidence to his soul. The steamboat upon which he has crossed the prairie unloads its passengers at the veranda of the second story of the hotel; and when, on the following day, the investor starts out in a row-boat to hunt up his real estate, he finds that he had unwittingly sailed across it as he came into town. The exact location of his lot, however, cannot be determined without a diving-bell. The corner-stakes, which were only waist-high, are under water, and he hears the surveyor, who is his pilot on this occasion, mutter to his assistant that it will be necessary to make his pegs as high as lamp-posts hereafter.
The flood subsides at last, as all floods must, and then the voice of the boomer a-booming is heard in Boomtown. This individual, who is an optimist of the most sanguine nature, has been the subject of many descriptions of late; but none have been more graphic than that which, in plain American, defines him as a “ rustler.” He travels with a map under his arm, hope in his heart, and, to say the least, exaggeration upon his lips. Early and late his cheerful tones are heard prophesying great things of the new city, and seductively offering a few lots for sale in the most promising part of the town. In his mind’s eye he sees paved sidewalks, street railways, court-houses, orphan asylums, and other city improvements dotting the barren surface of his unsold property, and if he is a good boomer his confidence is contagious.
Not Paris herself is more cosmopolitan in her population than Boomtown, as witness this extract from a report of the sheriff of that city : —
“Jail full, — three Indians, one negro, eight white civilians, and three soldiers. I am rustling now for a Chinaman, to complete the assortment.”
Social distinction is not hard to achieve in Boomtown. Rank, talent, and birth are of no importance there. Money to invest is the thing. Who would be lionized there should enter the city with the careworn brow, light grip-sack, and modest dress of the solid millionaire. Let him ask a few discreet questions about the prices of property here and there ; then let him be seen pacing off the frontage of lots marked “ For Sale,” as if to determine their extent, and let him thoughtfully bore his cane into the soil, as if to ascertain its fitness for foundations, and his success is assured. Rumor is swift to make a magnate of him. Real-estate agents send in their cards. The hotel clerk transfers him to parlors on the first floor. Newspaper reporters solicit his opinion upon the city of their pride; and when he answers, in terms of ordinary compliment, that its growth is wonderful and its future metropolitan splendor is beyond question, his words are printed as oracular utterances. Committees of leading citizens call upon their distinguished visitor, and give him a free ride in a hack over the avenues and boulevards which are to be ; and the boomer tells him pretty stories, as they sit together over club-house dinners and champagne suppers innumerable. By all means, the tourist to Boomtown should affect the thoughtful air of the capitalist with money to spend.
One hears in Boomtown the same old jokes that have furnished amusement to the Western traveler since the days of Bonneville and Bridger, and he comes at last to wonder if new witticisms are really as rare upon the frontier as in the minstrel show and circus ring. Funny stories that were printed in Beyond the Mississippi and Roughing It, years and years ago, are told as actual occurrences of yesterday or to-day, and the exasperated listener is considered a stick if he does not join in the laughter which accompanies them. They say that the climate of Boomtown is so healthy that they had to shoot a man to start a graveyard with ; the legend and adventure of “ Pike’s Peak or Bust” are adapted to “ Boomtown or Bust ; ” and telling you of the dainty Englishman who, calling for a glass of sherry and an egg, was given whisky in a tin cup, and made to drink it at the revolver’s muzzle, they give local color to this thrilling incident by describing the exact saloon in Boomtown in which it occurred. The man in good clothes who travels through the West is sure to be taken for a tenderfoot, and treated to a rehash of Western humor. To avoid this infliction there is perhaps no safer way than to fight fire with fire, so to speak, and, anticipating your companion’s jokes, tell them to him before he has a chance to begin.
Nothing so disgusts a raconteur as to be thus dosed with his own medicine.
The enterprising newspaper, which appropriates and retails the anecdotes of the popular lecturer, has also made common property of the mulewhacker’s vernacular and the scout’s adventure. A man in Arizona says a good thing, a newspaper correspondent from New York puts it in circulation, and in a month all of the people of Montana are repeating it as original material. The tourist who is writing a book will do well to ponder these things. He travels over the same routes, employs the same guides, hears the same stories, sees the same scenery, and receives the same impressions as a dozen authors who have gone before him ; and when his volume appears it will be easy to prove that it is plagiarized from the works of his predecessors. He should therefore, before going into print, read all kindred existing literature, and prune his own notes accordingly ; but such a discipline will leave him scarcely anything worth publishing.
Travelers arriving in Boomtown by rail will observe upon the platform at the station a person picturesquely attired in buckskin, with fringes down the legs of his pantaloons and a silver cord around his white felt hat. His hair is long and redolent. His mustache is terrible. Mexican spurs jingie at his heels. He is girt about with a whole armory of pistols and knives, silver-mounted, and his whole appearance is calculated to send the cold chills of awe over the beholder. Being questioned, this piratical individual admits that he is celebrated as an Indian slayer, was General Custer’s favorite scout, and is known to fame by some such euphonic title as “ Grizzly George,” or “ Sure Pop Peter. " Yes, he will condescend to take a drink with his questioner, from whom the death-dealing terror borrows five dollars, at the close of the interview. In short, he is a fraud, as the average hunter and trapper of the railway station is very liable to he. His appearance is purely theatrical, and his acquaintance with the Indian question entirely theoretical. The genuine hero of the plains and mountains does not oil his hair and stand in public places awaiting an invitation to drink. Nor is he known by any display of scalps in his belt, or hyperbole in his conversation. More likely, he is a plain and silent man, dressed in ready-made clothes, with a stoop in his shoulder and a patch on his knee, with no visible weapons except a well-worn butcher-knife in his boot-leg, and, taken altogether, not easily distinguishable from the most unheroic of us. This may be sad news for the boys of America, who have constructed a different ideal of the plainsman and mountaineer, but nevertheless it is true.
To return to the all-absorbing topic of this region, the tourist should be warned that it is not always safe to buy Boomtown real estate àla carte, or as it appears upon the map. The enterprising boomer has been known to purchase a tract of land some miles out on the prairie, plot it in its true position on the street, and then, cutting out the broad strip of territory between his property and the town, slide his suburban addition up to the heart of the city, and paste it there. The buyer who, guided by this fraudulent map, selects a lot in apparent proximity to the high school, penitentiary, and other conveniences of civilized life is greatly grieved to discover that his future home is situated somewhere out among the wheatfields.
Whenever the boomer meets with an objection on the score of price, he asks the permanent question, —
“ Do you consider yourself the biggest fool in the great Northwest ? ”
The buyer is naturally averse to placing himself at the head of the category of great Northwestern fools.
“ Then,” replies the boomer, “ buy this lot, and sell it to some bigger fool, when you meet him. That’s what I am doing.”
“ But it is not worth the money you ask for it,” protests the cautious purchaser.
“ Who cares what it is worth ? Intrinsic values don’t count here. We don’t buy lots for what they are worth in Boomtown. We buy them to sell again.”
The investor, notwithstanding the advantages offered him, will not be long in Boomtown before he wearies of the hollow mockery and unsubstantial wealth of this city in the air, and, becoming homesick and hungry, he is willing to sell his ground at the very low figures of its cost, namely, two hundred dollars. He is astonished that buyers should look askance at such a bargain, and refuse it. His fault lies in not charging enough. Speculators cannot reasonably be expected to snap at land which does not advance in value between sales.
Now mark the ways of the boomer, who has an adjoining lot of equal value. Going to the same group of timid investors, he offers it to them for two thousand dollars. The audacity of the proposal charms them into listening, while he explains that this piece of ground has cost him but two hundred dollars one brief year ago. Selling it for two thousand, as he is now doing, he is realizing a profit of nine hundred per cent. on his investment. There is no reason why property should not continue to rise in value at the same rate for at least another year, when they can sell this lot for twenty thousand dollars. His logic is not to be gainsaid, and there is strife among the by-standers to secure this very profitable bit of realty. As the boomer closes the bargain, he is heard to remark sententiously, “ I did not come to Boomtown for my health.”
So goes the craze. Speculators arrive from all parts of the world. Gas companies are organized, and electric lights are hung freely about the town. Street railways are planned before there are any people to ride. Water-works are contracted for while whisky is yet the staple beverage. The boomer points to these improvements as additional inducements to the honest settler, who does not stop to realize that it is such as he that must pay for them, and that his share of the civic debt may be easily greater than the value of his property. More than one aspiring city has thus found itself bonded for more than it was intrinsically worth, and, if sold at auction, would not bring enough to satisfy its creditors.
For a month, or a year, the fever rages. The value of property is not computed on the solid basis of its usefulness for building purposes or market gardens, but on the fickle standard of what it can be sold for to-morrow. The world looks on in amazement, and says the Boomtown folks are mad. But they are not more mad than gamblers in general. When the old Dutch speculators bought a tulip bulb for ten thousand florins, it was for the unæsthetic reason that they expected to sell it soon for fifteen thousand, and not because they anticipated an equivalent amount of comfort or happiness to result from its possession. So it is with the gamblers at Boomtown ; and if they could only foresee the precise date when distrust shall take the place of confidence, timidity follow boldness, and panic crush speculation, all would be well. Unhappily the time of this inevitable turn in fortune’s wheel cannot be foreseen. It comes truly like a thief in the night. Even while town lots in the suburban cow pastures are auspiciously selling for one thousand dollars a front foot, a feeling of fear, coming from no one knows where, palsies the hearts of the community, arrests the voice of the bidder, and the panic begins. Travelers on the railway put their heads together, and tell each other that the bottom has fallen out of Boomtown at last. The bootblacks on the street volunteer the information that something is going to drop in Boomtown. Newspapers in distant cities print the warning, “Stand from under in Boomtown ! ” The winds whistle it, the brooks murmur it, and even the golden wheat-heads on the plain seem to nod, with a sagacious air, “ I told you so.”
The history of Boomtown is repeated in many a new settlement in the West, which in its youth enjoys an exaggerated importance as a railway terminus, or an outfitting camp, or a depot for the mines. The bubble of its greatness is inflated rapidly to the bursting point, when there is a sudden collapse in values. Fortunes which were made in a month are lost in a day. Mortgages are foreclosed without ceremony. The town is dead for a time, in that stupor which follows the exhilaration of drunkenness. The hosts of speculators and young doctors and lawyers decamp to other places of metropolitan promise. After the panic comes the enduring period of slow and healthy growth, in which settlers come to stay, and property is bought and sold for useful purposes alone. But though they grow a hundred years, these towns will never again see the glory of their early days, nor will they reap such prices for town lots as were paid in their brief golden age. The country is dotted with dilapidated villages which are the wrecks of the speculator’s hopes. A brick mansion, a corner store, a capacious warehouse, and a half dozen faded frame dwellings are all the fruitage of so much blossoming. Yet it was at one time demonstrated beyond a doubt that each of these villages was destined to be the “ New Chicago ; ” and wiser folks than you or I, dear reader, have believed it to their cost, and have learned too late that it does not profit a town to be at the head of navigation of a river which is not navigated, or the queen of a harbor which the ships do not visit, or the agricultural centre of a district which is not cultivated, or the shipping-point of a mine when the deposit is exhausted, or the gateway of a region which nobody enters.
Sometimes there are booms within a boom, as there are wheels within a wheel, and now one section and now another of Boomtown is selected as the future Broadway or Murray Hill of that city. The opening of a new avenue, the building of a fine business block, the extension of a street-car line, the location of a suburban railway station, a popular church, or a fashionable family, are all potent influences in the development of a city; and so many and powerful are these secondary springs of growth that the natural advantages of a town site are well-nigh offset by them. Sometimes a first settler seizes upon the most favorable ground of a coming city, and holds it at an exorbitant price, under the impression that the town must and will have it, at any rate. Rather than receive no profit from his property, while awaiting its sale, he permits the erection of such temporary structures as saloons, Irish shanties, livery stables, and circus tents, whose moderate rental will help him to pay the taxes, which are keeping him “ land poor.” Meanwhile the city finds room for itself elsewhere. The railway builds a depot in the swamp. The banks and business houses perch on the side-hill, and the fine residences seek other suburbs, while the best natural ground of the city’s site becomes disreputable and correspondingly valueless. As the Western citizen is esteemed in proportion as he contrib utes to the building up of his city, it is needless to say that this style of boomer is never sent to Congress.
Such booms are not confined to the West, as the people of the East doubtless know. When George Washington established the city which bears his name, it was his design that it should be built upon the fine plateau east of the Capitol ; but the property-holders of that quarter, appreciating the monopoly held by them, charged such prices that they repelled the buyers to the unhealthy and unfavorable localities now occupied.
One does not have to travel far, in the West, before he meets the man whose father or uncle was offered the ground upon which Chicago now stands for a pair of boots. Many are the regrets that he wastes over his ancestor’s stupidity in not closing the bargain. But if this pioneer had bought the land for a pair of boots, and if he could have foreseen its glorious future, he would undoubtedly have held his property at so high a figure — perhaps a whole suit of clothes — that the city builders would have selected some other spot upon the lake-shore for their enterprise. It is not an easy task to corral the city of the future, although the founders of the new town of Odessa, in Dakota, claim to have accomplished that feat by locating it upon that narrow strait of Devil’s Lake to which all railways must converge in order to cross.
While very few of the dealers in Western real estate lay claim to the title of philosopher, they do a vast deal of solid philosophizing in attempting to determine which is the coming street of the coming city. So many and diverse and conflicting are the causes at work that they are obliged to confess that luck as well as judgment plays an important part in their transactions. While the shrewdest often go to ruin, they see some bull-headed investor enriched by one of fortune’s freaks, and endowed henceforth with the reputation of being a far-seeing man. The wise boomer “ gets in on the ground-floor ” at Boomtown ; that is, he is one of the original purchasers of the town site, and buys the land by the acre or by the section. Cutting this up into lots, he sells them easily at a fabulous profit; for, while we are so constituted that a hundred dollars an acre seems a handsome price for land, the same sum for a small portion of that acre, in the guise of a city lot, seems very reasonable indeed.
Where the railway owns every alternate section, and thus has the power of locating its stations, with their accompaniments of offices, shops, and cattleyards, upon its own land, the boomer may find the ground-floor closed to him ; but he has nevertheless been doing a flourishing business in the second story of late, especially along the line of the Northern Pacific. Here that migratory city, Boomtown, almost as fugacious as that other unstable point, “ the end of the track,” which it closely follows, has halted successively at Fargo, Jamestown, Bismarck, Glendive, and Billings. Now it rests at the foot of the mountains, at Livingston, whence the branch railway diverges to the Yellowstone Park. Although this is the speculator’s last chance on that line, the railway, warned by experience, cruelly appropriates to itself the cream of the profits by charging one thousand dollars a lot before the town is begun. The boomer sadly realizes that not the ground-floor, but the attic, has been reserved for him in Livingston ; but still he buys, with an abiding faith in the enthusiasm and cash of the young capitalists from the East, whom the summer season is bound to bring forth.
According to the theorists, the western bank of a navigable river, at a railway crossing, is an excellent spot for a city. They argue that every city receiving its goods from the East is the source of supply of a fan-shaped area lying to the westward of it; and of course the centre from which the leaves of this fan radiate should, for the sake of convenience, lie on the same side of the river with the country which it covers. Mandan, the new city opposite Bismarck, on the Missouri River, bases its hopes of future prosperity on this principle, and, in support of the same, it points to the opposing towns of St. Louis and East St. Louis, Minneapolis and St. Anthony, Omaha and Council Bluffs, Fargo and Moorhead, etc.
The presence of a rival community near at hand has always proved a wholesome restraint upon the city which is undergoing the booming process. A skeptical editor or two across the river, who cry “ Ah ha ! ” to their neighbor’s extravagant boasts of population and prosperity, are a check upon those tendencies to exaggeration to which the unfettered mind is prone. Otherwise, the city would grow — upon paper — with the rankness of Jonah’s gourd. Real-estate agents and newspaper men vie with each other in adroit computations and estimates, in which the laws of arithmetic and truth are alike violated, and by which the population is shown to be at least double its real number. In the columns of material progress is printed the cost of magnificent edifices which are as yet but castles in the air, the ground for their foundations being still unbroken. Were it not for the periodical visits of that miserable pessimist, the census-taker, who pulls the people down from the clouds and stands them on the solid ground of reality, there is no telling to what ridiculous extremes the boomer might be led by this silly habit of self-magnification. The census-taker is the opposite of the boomer: one is a sordid groveler among facts ; the other is a brilliant master of imagination. The census official is not a favorite in Boomtown. His methods are condemned as picayunish, the accuracy of his report is impeached, and abuse and obloquy are everywhere his portion.
Shall we invest our little stake in Boomtown interests ? Well, government bonds are just as safe, even though they may not be so exciting. We cannot all be boomers; some of us, in the language of the land, must be suckers. The widows and orphans and dry-goods clerks and other small capitalists of the East will perhaps do as well to speculate, if speculate they must, in some more familiar field nearer home, such as Newport, Long Island, or the oil regions. The world is addicted to looking on the bright side of things; we hear full reports of the great fortunes made in Boomtown, but other fortunes, equally great, which are lost there go unnoticed. So far as luck is a factor in the making of money, the chances of the outsider are equal to those of the native, but in judgment and experience the latter has decidedly the advantage. Even the infants cry for real estate, there. You pass a group of school-boys on the corner, but their talk is not of marbles, bicycles, and other topics of juvenile interest; they are telling each other what particular lots they would buy if they had a hundred thousand dollars apiece. You meet a trio of maidens on the sidewalk, and as they pass you hear the unmaidenly words “ a hundred dollars a front foot.” Such a people may be conquered, but not in a realestate transaction. In the old game of spider and fly, the spider, it will be observed, is always at home, while the fly is the tourist visitor. When there is a prize to be picked up, it is safe to conclude that the old resident, who has watched the fluctuations of values for many years, will take advantage of it. The agent may guarantee you a thousand per cent. profit on a proposed bargain ; but when we see real-estate agents rolling in wealth, as a result of taking their own advice, we may accept their words as gospel truth.
Nor is the speculator from abroad welcomed by the solid sense of a growing city. The builder is received with open arms, and ground is often given him upon which to build ; and even a handsome purse is made up for him if he will erect a mill or a hotel, or in some other manner supply the community’s needs. But woe unto the non-resident who buys for a rise in values, and, in the long years that he is awaiting this advance, permits his block of ground to become a camping-ground for the refuse population of the city. The municipal authorities have no mercy on the stranger, but tax and assess him right and left, for grading, paving, sidewalks, gas, water, and sprinkling. His property increases in value, but not in proportion to its expenses; and when his desperation is such that he fain would sell it for what it has cost him, the city licks up the finest portion of his estate for a park or a pleasure-drive, and assesses him anew for the benefits he is supposed to have derived from this public improvement. They even tell the story of a man whose lot was entirely obliterated by a new street, and whose benefits therefrom were computed to exceed his damages ; but this is probably an error.
Frank D. Y. Carpenter.