Romeyn Falls

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FROM THE FALLS TO THE HEIGHTS
A Brief History of Astro City

By Elliot Mills


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The deep and muddy ruts of covered wagons headed west can still be seen at the Romeyn Falls Historical Center, preserved under glass, an ever-present reminder of the humble beginnings that birthed a great city.

It was one of those wagons, carrying a man named Romeyn -- Hannes, perhaps, or Josepus; history does not agree on his first name -- that started it all. A cartoonist and engraver, either Dutch or Italian, he reportedly came to America after offending a wealthy and powerful patron. Unable to find work he found agreeable in the eastern cities, he pushed west, his sights set on a new life as a farmer in California. After a broken axle halted his westward journey at the base of Mount Kirby, sometime in the late 1840s, he was left destitute, without funds or prospects. According to area lore, he carried with him hardware for a water-driven mill, and built what was intended to be a small and temporary operation at the falls feeding the Wildenberg River, hoping to earn enough to re-supply himself and continue on his journey.

He never left.

He never married, either, which may explain why so little is known of him. Irascible and uncommunicative, he worked at his mill, enlarging it in time to the version seen at the Historical Center, and spent his waning years producing paintings and engravings capturing the wild and natural beauty of his surroundings, many of which are on display at the Patterson Museum of Art.

A small community sprung up around his mill, mainly Scandinavian and Northern European immigrants, like Romeyn exhausted from the trip west, trying their hand at supplying those who still had the money and drive to push on. Farming, ranching, hunting, trapping and more supported the settlers, and supplied the raw materials for the goods they sold in the riverside marketplace.

In time, Romeyn’s small mill and its bitter, silent miller, like the grain of sand around which an oyster forms a pearl, became the center of a thriving commercial district, supporting farms and ranches on both sides of the Wildenberg. In 1852, the area was incorporated as the town of Romeyn Falls.

For some years thereafter, Romeyn Falls had a reputation as a wide-open town, often lawless, but just as often witness to a mysterious sense of poetic justice. Outlaw bands occasionally ran roughshod over the area -- but never for long. And legends sprang up, of a trapper-hero named Johnny Lightfoot, a half-Indian woman known only as Palomino, and more. The Lightning Kid, subject of the recent Val Kilmer film, spent most of his career in and around Romeyn Falls.

And of course, in the 1860s, when the railroad came to the area, the first sightings of Ironhorse, the Human Locomotive, were reported, protecting both the trains themselves from would-be bandits, and Chinese laborers from the railroad bosses. Whether the Ironhorse occasionally glimpsed today is the same being is a matter of considerable debate, but his existence in the Old West is not.

But frontier days gave way to growth and maturity, and before long, Romeyn Falls was less Western town and more young city, a mercantile hub between the mountains and the plains. In 1869, Cardinal Enzio Grandenetti, one of Astro City’s most significant citizens, arrived in town with plans to built a great cathedral that would outshine the spires of the Rockies themselves, serving the growing populace and glorifying God.

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Though the cathedral itself was never completed -- it sprawls over fourteen blocks of Old Town today, and is run by the city as a museum -- it changed the complexion of the city, bringing in the eastern European laborers and stonemasons who settled the eastern slopes on Mount Kirby, the neighborhood now known as Shadow Hill.

It was around this time, as well, that a former slave named Hiram Baker broke ground on the farm that would become the nucleus of the Bakerville neighborhood. Baker, like so many others, was subjected to racist harassment by those who didn’t want free blacks in the area, but he held his ground. Some said he was protected by voodoo magic, others said it was simply the spirit of the town. For whatever reason, he and the other freedmen who settled around him thrived.

In the latter days of the 19th century, Romeyn Falls’ history was similar to that of other cities in the area, as transportation interests grew in importance and tensions between farmers and cattlemen grew. But perhaps some of its former “wide-open” nature remained -- something certainly happened in 1887, when the slaughterhouse district on the western shore of the Gaines River burned. Contemporary accounts, elaborated on in fanciful dime novels, tell of the attack of the “Howling Dead,” a ghostly stampede of bison and countless Indian warriors, staved off by a rare alliance of heroes, which varies from telling to telling, but generally includes Ironhorse and is cited as responsible for the death of Johnny Lightfoot.

That wild night seemed to spell the end of Romeyn Falls’ “mystery history,” at least for a time. There are stories of undercover government agents and daring thieves, but few stories of superhuman forces outside the confines of Shadow Hill. It wasn’t until 1919, in the wake of World War I, that Air Ace, often cited as Astro City’s first true superhero, debuted. Thought to be “Whit” McAleer, a veteran of trench warfare who gained the ability to fly after being exposed to an experimental German gas attack, he bravely defended the city against the similarly-airborne Barnstormer Gang, capturing the public imagination and winning the admiration of millions nationwide. Questions about his connection to the Cornerstone Club, a group of influential businessmen, remain speculative and unanswered.

Air Ace’s brief but shining career seemed to crack open the gates of mystery, and slowly, the costumed population of Romeyn Falls seemed to grow. From the so-called Hawk of the Alleyways to the masked Chinese warriors known as the Five Fists, the Roaring Twenties roared with a different tone in the ever-more bustling city. Even Prohibition seemed to spawn larger-than-life crusaders, as bootleggers and racketeers seeking to establish a beachhead in Romeyn Falls found themselves opposed by the Cloak of Night, a shadowy vigilante who struck and vanished without warning or trace.

By the mid-1930s, of course, the Astro-Naut made his first appearance, and as the fires of war ignited in Europe, a virtual cornucopia of heroes appeared, from the night-prowling Lamplighter to the celebrated All-American and Slugger the Junior Dynamo...


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Article reprinted from Astro City: A Visitor's Guide. Permission kindly granted from and contents © Juke Box Productions.