Standing on the balcony of the Blaine Hotel in Chadron, Neb., a thousand miles west of Chicago, Jim Hartzel pointed a pistol into the air and said earnestly, "Boys, the hour is now arrived for the cowboy race from Chadron to Chicago to start." Nine horsemen, all in a belligerent mood, were lined up before the Blaine Hotel. "I trust you will take good care of your horses," Hartzel continued, for the benefit of two humane society officials who were trying to stop the race, "and I know you will conduct yourselves as gentlemen and uphold the good name of Chadron and the State of Nebraska."
Then he fired the pistol. It was 5:33 on the evening of June 13, 1893. The regimental band of the Ninth U.S. Cavalry began to play; some 3,500 spectators lining the street leading out of town broke into cheers. To the astonishment of the journalists present, the riders started at a walk. "There was no grand dash," wrote the reporter for Harper's Weekly, the leading national news magazine of the time, "no spurt at the start. The horses ambled off."
The nine riders, who included one nationally famous gunman, Doc Middleton, a mysterious newcomer known as Rattlesnake, a stagecoach driver and six cowpunchers, moved out of Chadron together and jogged along the road past Pine Ridge, southeast of town. Barely on speaking terms, the racers kept together to the town of Rushville. It was after dark when they arrived. Middleton, a sinister looking character in boots, jeans and a white sombrero, his black beard tucked into the handkerchief around his neck, stabled his two horses, Jimmie and Geronimo, and registered at the Rushville hotel to get a good night's sleep. After some hesitation John Berry, the stagecoach driver, did likewise, followed by the others, with one exception. Joe Gillespie, a genuine cowboy, gray-haired, extremely fat but light on his feet and a gifted rider, went on through Rushville and slept in the open with his horses. He was the first away in the morning....
What became known as The Great 1,000-Mile Cowboy Race actually began as a joke. Emmett Albright, a Texas cowboy living in the town of Crawford, not far from Chadron, cooked up a gag that 300 cowboys were going to race across the prairie to the Chicago World's Fair. He planted the story in eastern newspapers with the aid of a newspaperman, never identified. In Albright's story the cowboys, on arriving in Chicago, would demonstrate range skills—riding, cutting out cattle, and so on. It was expected the show would attract thousands to the Union Stockyards.
Upon seeing their gag in print, Albright and his newspaper crony improved on it. Various portly businessmen in Chadron and elderly farmers living around the countryside were pictured as eagerly enrolling to ride to Chicago. It was printed that Jim Hartzel, the deadliest shot in Nebraska, was certain to enter. Jim was the town fire chief. Another contender was Win Satterlee, described as "a daring rider and great favorite on the range." Win was the 11-year-old son of the owner of the Blaine Hotel.
The livery-stable sophisticates of Chadron were convulsed; it was the funniest thing that had ever happened to the town. Then letters began to pour into Chadron from all over the world. The jokers had unexpectedly touched on one of the hottest subjects in military and humane-society circles. In the preceding fall the German and Austrian cavalry had staged a Berlin-to-Vienna endurance race—360 miles—that turned into a ghastly parody of a military exercise. Of the 230 horses in the race, more than 30 died or were disabled. One fell off a bridge, and others were kept going by injections of morphine. The German officers held back, hoping to let Prince Frederick Leopold, the cousin of the Kaiser, enter Vienna first; Leopold, whose horse broke down after 11 hours, kept the animal doped for the remaining 74 hours. An Austrian, Count Starhemberg, won the $5,000 first prize with an elapsed time of 71 hours 20 minutes, but his horse died.
Most of these horses were Thoroughbreds, but many of the best performers were wiry little Hungarian horses of uncertain ancestry. In England, where the poor showing of the German cavalry was a revelation, there was a movement to find new sources of cavalry mounts, and General George Benjamin Wolseley (he became Sir George) was investigating the use of western cow ponies. General Wolseley was a veteran of heroic reputation dating from the Indian Mutiny and an aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria. More important, he was the younger brother of Viscount Wolseley, who helped create the modern British army. So all Europe was following the news from Nebraska.
Albright and his friends were stunned to find their thousand-mile horse race being taken with the utmost seriousness. The Chadron newspaper sternly editorialized that in the future local pranksters should keep their jokes to themselves. But interest had mounted to the point where a public meeting was called in Nelson's Opera House to discuss the race. A first prize of $1,000 was raised. Buffalo Bill wired from his Wild West show at the Chicago fair that he would add $500. He had been queried by General Wolseley about shipping range horses to England for the cavalry. A race committee was set up, and rules were worked out. Only western cow ponies could be used, and only two horses to a man, with ordinary 35-pound range saddles, the saddle and rider to weigh not less than 150 pounds.
Some mighty strange cowboys entered. Doc Middleton was the former head of a gang of thugs known as the Pony Boys who had terrorized northeastern Nebraska, across the state from Chadron. His pal, Kid Wade, had been lynched, the gang had been broken up and, after serving a jail term, Doc had become respectable, settling down as a Chadron gambler.
The day before the race was to start, an unknown who called himself Rattlesnake Jim Stephens arrived in Chadron with two fine horses, saying he had ridden 500 miles from Kansas in 11 days to enter the race. He looked like a dime novel character, with his hatband of rattlesnake rattles.