With all the controversy in the news of late about "the wall," readers may not remember a wall was a major source of contention more than 100 years ago in the Tri-State District. The rivalry between Empire City and Galena in Kansas resulted in construction of a wall and an all-out battle in 1877.
That year, two Joplin miners, John Shoe and John McAllen, set out to prospect for lead west of Joplin into Cherokee County, Kansas. They found signs of lead along Short Creek. With the permission of J. Nichols, a local farmer, they dug a shaft, striking a vein of lead just 15 feet below the surface. It didn't take long for news of the strike to spread.
Miners flocked into Southeast Kansas and property values skyrocketed. For example, farmland such as the Nichols property had sold for $3 an acre before the strike. Once news of the discovery of lead ore hit, the 120-acre Nichols farm was sold to the West Joplin Lead & Zinc Co. for $7,000. South of Short Creek and adjoining the Nichols land, Egidius Moll, a German farmer who had scratched out a living, sold his land for $10,000 to the South Side Town & Mining Co., among whose owners was Joplin brewer and banker Edward Zelleken. The West Joplin Lead & Zinc Co. was owned by S.L. Cheeney and Patrick Murphy. Murphy was later known for his work in finance and the Joplin Special Road District.
While individuals had made the initial discoveries, it was mining companies that set up shop, establishing rival towns on opposite sides of Short Creek. While Galena was incorporated in May 1877 on land owned by the South Side Town & Mining Co., Empire City was incorporated in June 1877 on the Murphy company land. Both towns experienced a flood of miners and prospectors. According to one source, in two months Galena had become a town of 3,000 residents. Empire City was not far behind, with a similar population and its own post office by July.
The first business street was Columbus Street in Empire City, which began at the north border of Galena running north through the town. Main Street in Galena began one block east of Columbus Street, at the south line of Empire City running south. Red Hot Street was a block long, east and west, connecting Columbus and Main. The border was a hotbed of vice. Saloons, prostitution, gambling and confidence games blossomed, separating miners from their wages. Murders were not uncommon on Red Hot Street.
At first, Empire City had the upper hand, as it had the first mining operations. But in a short while, it was learned that the major lead deposits were on the south side of Short Creek beneath Galena. Miners were transient residents and soon were moving to the Galena fields. Over the summer of 1877, the tide of fortune could be seen shifting toward Galena.
In an effort to staunch the flow of residents south, the Empire City Council on July 25 authorized construction of a stockade of heavy timbers 8 feet tall driven into the ground, similar to the classic image of a frontier fort. The stockade was to extend a half mile, the length of the town's southern border, cutting off the south end of Columbus Street and the bridge over Short Creek. Contention was so sharp that Empire City provided police protection for workers constructing the fence.
Of course, this did not go unnoticed by Galena and its first mayor, George Webb. Protests from Galena to state and federal governments fell on deaf ears. In a month, the towns were separated, and the closure of Columbus Street was the last step. Closure would have stopped the stagecoach delivering the U.S. mail south to Galena and Baxter Springs. Webb, with approval of the Galena council, deputized a posse of 50 men who arrested workers attempting to close the road.
At 4 a.m. on Aug. 15, Webb struck the wall itself. The morning attack took the Empire City builders by complete surprise. No bloodshed was involved, although some shots were fired. (Some years later, a gun barrel thought to be a relic of the battle was dug up along the route of the stockade.) Webb's posse torched the wall.
Not to be outdone, Empire City arrested Webb for arson. But to add insult to injury, the Galena Land Co., part-underwriters of Galena, refused to go Webb's bond. He was taken to Empire City police court, tried and convicted. On appeal he was acquitted.
But the wall was never rebuilt. Over the next several years, Empire City declined as the more extensive mine fields to the south were developed. Empire City and Galena continued to fight over rival post offices. Controversies between the two were contested in the courts. It was not until 30 years after its foundation, on July 9, 1907, that Empire City was incorporated into Galena. Some remnants of the stockade were still around and became souvenirs. The wall had become a memory of those raucous early days.
Bill Caldwell is the librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message at 417-627-7261.