Tombstone, Arizona

February 12, 2022

Tombstone is about the same distance from Willcox, Arizona, and from Tucson, the next city we stayed at in Arizona. We decided to make it a day trip from our campsite in Willcox. Neither of us had been to Tombstone before, and Gunther hadn’t, either, so we brought him along.

Tombstone started out as one of thousands of mining towns in the western United States, but it, of course, became famous for its lawlessness. Unlike the majority of those mining towns, it’s still around: precisely because of its reputation dating back to a gunfight 140 years ago that lasted perhaps 30 seconds.

Nancy and I were both rather surprised to see how many people had the same idea as us: there were more people on the streets of Tombstone than we’d seen in a couple of months. Because of the pandemic, we didn’t venture inside any of the buildings but enjoyed a pretty day on Tombstone’s streets.

This is the site of the Oriental Saloon, which was opened in 1880. Wyatt Earp (who wasn’t a marshal at Tombstone; he was deputized by his brother Virgil at the time of the famous gunfight) owned a share of the gaming tables in the Oriental. The original building burned down in an 1881 fire, but the Oriental was rebuilt quickly – just in time to be threatened by a larger fire in 1882. However, the building survived that threat. The Oriental became a drug store when Arizona adopted statewide prohibition in 1914, and has been home to a number of other businesses since then.

Tombstone was founded by Ed Schieffelin, who was briefly a scout for the U.S. Army. Schieffelin spent his free time searching for mineral deposits in the area, looking to strike it rich. The story goes that a friend told Schieffelin that the only rock he’d find would be his own tombstone. In 1877 Schieffelin did indeed find a significant vein of silver not far from the present location of the town; he named his mining claim “Tombstone,” and the name became attached to the town. Other miners were attracted to the area, and by the fall of 1879 several thousand people were living in canvas tents on top of the richest silver strike in Arizona’s history.

The first permanent buildings of Tombstone, no different from most boomtowns in the American West, were largely constructed from wood. As was the case with many of those towns, significant fires took their toll. What that means today is that very few of the most famous structures in Tombstone are the actual buildings dating from the 1880s. The first major fire occurred on June 22, 1881, and destroyed 66 businesses in the eastern half of the town’s business district. Less than a year later, a large fire on May 25, 1882, destroyed more than 100 businesses in Tombstone, including the O.K. Corral.

Unlike many buildings in Tombstone, the Bird Cage Theatre is original. It was built in 1881, and, after the fire that year, was one of only two theaters in the town. It operated as a first-class variety theater, bringing professional entertainers to Tombstone. It closed as a theater in 1892 and was, for many years, a museum.
This is the site of the famous gunfight that occurred Oct. 26, 1881. It was a vacant lot near, but not in or at, the O.K. Corral. The gunplay, part of a simmering feud that involved politics and families, involved Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp, his brothers and temporary deputies Wyatt and Morgan, and Doc Holliday, versus the Clanton and McLaury families. The Earp family left Arizona in early 1882. There are at least two different recreated gunfights in Tombstone. It’s our understanding that the town used to have recreated gunfights in the street, but those are no longer conducted: everything’s inside a building now, and a paid ticket is needed.

At the height of the silver boom, Tombstone had a population of about 10,000 people. It was a very wealthy city, and could offer world-class entertainment and foods that were impossible to find elsewhere in the West. By 1881, there were four churches, three newspapers (including the gloriously named “Tombstone Epitaph”), two banks, and 110 saloons. After the mining claims played out, Tombstone’s population dwindled to the point that it nearly became a ghost town. Only the fact that it remained the seat of Cochise County saved it from disappearing completely. In 1929, the citizens of Cochise County voted to move the county seat to Bisbee, about 20 miles south of Tombstone.

This is the Cochise County Courthouse, which was completed in January 1883 at a cost of $43,000. After the county seat was moved to Bisbee, an effort was made to convert this building to a hotel but that project was never completed. The city donated the building to the Arizona State Park Board in 1959, and the former courthouse because Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park in 1960. A sign near the building states that the eaves on the courthouse serve as homes to colonies of Mexican free-tail and big brown bats. Their droppings, however, destroy the wood of the building. Arizona State Parks is working to exclude the bats from the courthouse, but any measures to do so must allow the bats to leave without allowing them to return, and, because of the historic designation of the building, can’t permanently alter the courthouse.

Today, Tombstone is definitely devoted to tourism. About 450,000 people visit this small town each year – that’s almost 350 visitors for every resident of Tombstone (current population: 1,300). For perspective, 42 million people visited Las Vegas, Nevada, (current population: 642,000) in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, which is 65 tourists for every Las Vegan.

Tombstone has several horsedrawn coaches going up and down its streets. As soon as we approached the street, Gunther started barking at the horses – we didn’t realize until then that he’d never been close to one. He calmed down after a while, and toward the end of our visit was fine with being around his new horse friends.

Our trip to Tombstone was enjoyable enough. It certainly gave Gunther an opportunity to expand his horizons a bit; I don’t think we’ll return, but we’re glad we went.

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