07 Nov Wanderings: Buffalo Bill’s Wyoming Legacy
Legend has it that when William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody was visiting Wyoming in 1894, his son-in-law brought him to the top of the Bighorn Mountains. Looking out over the Shoshone River and the sprawling Bighorn Basin, the entrepreneur and legendary showman clearly saw an opportunity. Surrounded by mountain ranges, blessed with a dependable water source, and located just 53 miles from the newly established Yellowstone National Park, the landscape was still undeveloped due to an 1868 treaty that restricted white settlement until it was lifted around 1878. So, when Buffalo Bill caught wind that a group of businessmen was interested in establishing a town there, he joined forces and became the face and founder of Cody, Wyoming. And in 1901, when the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad opened a line to Cody, the town was officially incorporated.
Buffalo Bill’s legacy runs deep in Cody, as do the opportunities for adventure, culture, exploration, and entertainment. And that’s not surprising, considering the legendary figure is best known for his Wild West Show, which was touted as “the most successful tour de force in traveling entertainment during the late 1800s.” While some might visit Cody for hiking and mountain biking, others are drawn to the history and arts. And then, of course, there’s the close proximity to Yellowstone’s East Entrance, which Buffalo Bill helped to establish in the early 1900s.
The iconic neon sign for the Irma Hotel serves as a beacon for downtown Cody. Named after Buffalo Bill’s daughter, the landmark hotel cost $80,000 to build in 1902, and walking through the doors today, it seems that not much has changed. Historic photographs and relics are displayed, while period furnishings keep the Wild West feel intact, including the cherry wood back bar that was gifted to Buffalo Bill by England’s Queen Victoria in 1900. The lengthy porch of the restaurant and bar is a great place to grab a happy hour beverage and watch the Wild Bunch Gunfighter’s Show, a free 30-minute reenactment of a shootout that takes place in the street Monday through Saturday during the summer months.
Before setting out to explore, stop by the Cody Visitor Center to plan an itinerary. From there, the hour-long ride with Cody Trolley Tours — departing from the Irma Hotel throughout the day from late May through September — is a perfect way to learn about the town’s layout, architecture, history, and attractions. The animated guides who led my trip spouted off interesting facts and stories, including a renowned tale about the dispute over Buffalo Bill’s burial spot.
After the tour, head across the street for an espresso or smoothie from Rawhide Coffee before walking to nearby cultural hotspots. The first stop, and one of Cody’s biggest draws, is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which features five world-class museums under one roof and a slew of family-friendly activities. The Whitney Western Art Museum displays works from iconic artists like Charles Russell, Frederic Remington, and Thomas Moran alongside those by acclaimed contemporary Western artists; while the Plains Indian Museum features one of the largest collections of Native American art and artifacts in the U.S. The others include the Draper Natural History Museum, Cody Firearms Museum, and, of course, the Buffalo Bill Museum. Every September, Western art lovers flock to Cody for Rendezvous Royale, a weeklong celebration that features quickdraws, art walks, studio tours, lectures, workshops, and the signature Buffalo Bill Art Show and Sale to benefit the Center of the West.
To get a feel for other local and regional artists, stroll down Sheridan Avenue — the town’s main strip — and visit Big Horn, Timmer, Simpson Gallagher, and other galleries. From there, be sure to dip down 12th Street and visit By Western Hands, an exhibit space and store that showcases the craftsmanship of some of the best artisans in the West, featuring handcrafted wood furniture, beadwork, sculpture, pottery, jewelry, fiber arts, and more.
Right across the street is the red brick building that houses the Chamberlin Inn, a historic boutique hotel built in 1901 and originally run by Agnes Chamberlin, the wife of Cody’s first dentist. The landmark — which has hosted Ernest Hemingway and other notables — was added onto over time, and the elegant interiors have been meticulously restored. If you’re not able to score a room there, it’s worth visiting for a cocktail and live music on the patio.
Also on 12th Street is the Cody Dug Up Gun Museum, which displays an impressive collection of antique firearms. The pieces on display were discovered, or dug up, from just about every war and era in American history. And for those interested in trying out some guns from different eras, along with some good ol’ ax throwing — try the Cody Firearms Experience just west of town.
For explorations on the outskirts of town, take the Buffalo Bill Scenic Highway — following the Shoshone River toward Yellowstone’s East Entrance — for 3 miles to Old Trail Town, the original town site for Cody. Along with a collection of frontier buildings from the 1890s — including cabins and a saloon used by outlaws Butch Cassidy, his Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, and the Sundance Kid — there are furnishings and relics from the Wild West and a graveyard where the fabled mountain man Jeremiah Johnson now rests in peace.
A few miles up the road is the 325-foot-high Buffalo Bill Dam, which, completed in 1910, was one of the first concrete arch dams built in the U.S. and the highest in the world at the time. Walk across the top for a long view down the canyon, and check out the Visitor Center’s interpretive exhibits that highlight the dam’s construction, regional geology, wildlife, and more.
For an evening filled with Cody’s cowboy spirit, try the chuckwagon dinner and show at the Cody Cattle Company, followed by a rodeo at the nearby Cody Stampede, a venue that features events every night of the week, from June through August.
A visit to Cody makes it clear that Buffalo Bill’s vision of creating a bustling tourist hub and a gateway to Yellowstone National Park was spot-on. Like the man himself, the town embodies a Wild West cowboy vibe, a cultured side, and an adventurous, outdoorsy nature, making it a well-rounded destination to suit a variety of interests.
Corinne Gaffner Garcia is a freelance writer and editor based in Bozeman, Montana. Her work has appeared in Marie Claire, Country Living, Martha Stewart Living, and many other publications; corinnegarcia.com.
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Buffalo Bill Center of the West