By Bill Virden
Thursday morning, September 25, 1902 was important in San Diego. Children were excused from school for a part of the morning, and those fortunate enough to have written notes from their parents also escaped during the afternoon; the area at the foot of Twenty-second street was a bee-hive of activity, and the San Diego Electric Railway had all its cars in operation. People flocked into San Diego by all conceivable means of transportation from throughout the county. Col. William F. Cody, better known as “Buffalo Bill,” was arriving with his “Wild West Show and Rough Riders of the World.” The Southern Pacific railroad turned over the train to Santa Fe sometime during the night, and the entire city eagerly awaited the arrival of the troupe at the Twenty-second street grounds.
At the turn of the century, among celebrities, it was chic and fashionable to make numerous “farewell” appearances. The advance publicity hailed this as the “First, Last and Only Visit to San Diego,” and Buffalo Bill’s “Au Revoir” appearance. These statements stood the test of time until some years later — October 19, 1910, to be exact, when Buffalo Bill again arrived in San Diego for his “Adieu” performance, complete with seventy-eight railroad cars and a cast of 1,100 persons. This 1910 engagement was billed as “The Last, The Biggest and Best Show of the Season — Colonel Cody positively Bids you Good-bye.”
And now, to return to that “first farewell” of 1902 —
The trains arrived at mid morning, and those cars containing the tents, seats and baggage were unloaded at the Twenty-second street grounds, while Colonel Cody’s private car, and the cars carrying the riders and their horses were unloaded at the old D Street depot.
The parade got under way about one o’clock in the afternoon and was witnessed by more than eleven thousand people lining the streets. Among other things, this show featured the famous “Congress of Nations” and we can only visualize the grand spectacle of long columns of Germans, English, Cubans, Turkish and Transvaal Rough Riders. Not the least of this procession were the Cossacks with their long grey coats, Astrachan hats and high saddles. These riders were followed with intense interest. Even then they were representatives of a nation which considered itself the prospective competitor of this country.
Next came the Indians, stony faced, astride their pinto horses, and attired in colorful and gaudy costumes. Such well known names as Young Spotted Tail, and Crow Dog, were among the Indians. As in our parades today, the beautiful horses were popular and Colonel Cody was indeed world famous for acquiring good stock.
After the parade came the afternoon performance, where promptly at 2:15 the band opened the show with a stirring overture. The first to charge into the arena were the Indians, sitting their horses like centaurs, without aid of saddles, and made up in full war paint. Following them came the cavalrymen, representing several countries, including America. Close on their heels came the cowboys, cowgirls, the Cossacks and Arabs. Last to enter, with his genuine flair for showmanship, came Colonel Cody on his magnificent white charger. He raced the entire length of the arena, stopping in front of the grand-stand. With a flourish he doffed his hat and saluted the audience as the entire group advanced in line behind him. Suddenly the entire arena became a spectacle of color and utter chaos as hundreds of mounted riders dashed off in what seemed endless confusion. As if by magic, the riders fell into a beautiful serpentine around the arena, disappearing behind the amphitheater. They were quickly followed by a group of horsemen representing each of the countries, for a race. It is reported that the cowboy won.
The artillery drill was a popular production, in which the men showed expertness in handling heavy guns. Facing each side of the great arena were several cannons; orders to load and fire were carried out only when the cannon were turned away from the crowd. The explosions amounted to nothing more than a snapping of the cap at the end of the lanyard.
A top rider of the group was the late Thomas J. Isbell, who returned to San Diego in 1916 and lived here until his death in 1955. “Buffalo Bill was one of the finest men I ever knew,” said Isbell. “As a squareshooter, he was without equal. He would kid a man if he was thrown and not hurt – if the man was hurt, he was as sympathetic as an old woman.”
Among the members of the show were many outstanding riders and entertainers. One of these was Ora Pazzo, champion riata thrower, who did incredible and marvelous feats with his “rope.” Colonel Cody recruited his actors from many walks of life, and a popular part of the programe was the military section. A bivouac on the field, prior to the battle of_San Juan Hill, was depicted in the arena and was participated in by ex members of the Sixth and Tenth United States infantry, by former members of Roosevelt’s rough riders and by ex-Cuban soldiers. The soldiers marched onto the field to the tune of “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” Orders of the bugle were obeyed as the soldiers formed large detachments on the field, and while they pitched their tents an animated camp scene was depicted.
Buffalo Bill was a crack marksman, and demonstrated his prowess by galloping around the arena, shooting glass balls thrown high into the air by Johnny Baker, who rode ahead of him. Although there were people who claimed that the “rifle” fired bird-shot rather than slugs, it was still good shooting and a good show. Baker himself was a star marksman, breaking clay birds without a miss. His finale came after shooting in various positions, when he stood on his head for a trial of three shots, none of which he missed.
The evening show drew even a larger crowd, and the same programe was repeated. One extra feature not seen by the afternoon customers was a large and powerful stereopticon, which threw huge pictures on a screen at the further end of the arena. This new-fangled machine was also used to throw colored lights on a number of scenes, adding to their beauty. Sandwiched in between all these acts were the Arabs, who portrayed sports and pastimes of their native land. While they performed, a dancing Dervish propelled himself around the platform for a full fifteen minutes in such a manner that would have completely incapacitated the uninitiated in a matter of seconds.
At the close of the show the entire company of riders gathered again to pay their respects to the audience. Long before the finale, preparations were being made to load the show back onto the train. Following the close of the performance came another parade, and it is reported that the cavalcade reached from the Court House to the Horton House. A large crowd was on hand to wave good-bye to “the finest show of its kind in the world.”
After leaving San Diego they went to Yuma and gave a free show to the Indians. Shortly thereafter the troupe left for Europe where they toured for the next five years, returning in 1907. During that time Colonel Cody sold the controlling interest to Pawnee Bill. It was Buffalo Bill’s and Pawnee Bill’s combined exhibitions which came to San Diego for a one day show in 1910. After buying control of the show, Pawnee Bill affected the long flowing hair of Buffalo Bill.
Never again did San Diego have the pleasure of this giant extravaganza. The 1910 show was what was described by the San Diego Union as “. . . a farewell adieu.” Nothing could be more final than this, and Cody did not return.
A long-time hero of Young (and not-so-young) America, William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) was born in Scott County, Iowa, February 26, 1846, and died at Denver, Colorado, January 10, 1917.