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.
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.
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.
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.
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.