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Tombstone is one of the most recognized names in the old “wild west” that many have heard about and studied in school. Unsuspecting visitors may be startled by gun shots in the street, but most people visit Tombstone for that very reason. Vivid reenactments of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral are played out in the street at 2PM on a daily basis.
The town with the name of a cemetery marker started out as a claim for the first silver mine in the area. Ed Schieffelin, who was a scout for the United States Army, searched the Goose Flats region for months in 1877. He found the large silver vein that earned him millions of dollars, as the first of his investments, and the area became a boom town in more ways than one. At about a foot wide and 50 feet long, this silver lode was the beginning of many other mines in the valley below the town of Tombstone. Ed named the mine Tombstone because his friends told him that his tombstone would be the only rock he would find out there.
Ed Schieffelin’s brother, Albert, built Schieffelin Hall in Tombstone to be used for opera, theater, recitals and town meetings. It still stands after 132 years even though a large fire in 1882 left it scorched. It is well-preserved and in use today for theater, city council meetings and other social and fundraising events. It is also a tourist attraction as the largest adobe structure still standing in the whole southwest area of the country.
Tombstone was a thriving city, growing from a group of 100 people to a population of 14,000 in seven years. The silver mines lasted from 1877-1890, enabling investors to build churches, brothels, 110 saloons, dance halls, gambling houses, two banks, one school, three newspapers and an ice cream parlor. There was an ice house, too, in this desert area. The town dwindled down to a little village about as fast as it grew into a major city earlier.
The town continued to exist, and in 1961, it was declared a National Historic Landmark. Tourism revived the town since many original structures are still standing and have been preserved. The population was just under 1400 in 2010, and the town’s wildness is only done for the benefit of tourists.
Nearly a half million tourists visit every year, helping the town continue to preserve the old landmarks that are left. Visitors can see where the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place on Fremont Street, and mannequins are stationed where the actual gunfighters stood according to the report made by Wyatt Earp himself. There are quite a few “citizens” dressed in period clothing to add to the effect of losing about 130 years of time.
One unexpected piece of history in Tombstone is the Lady Banksia rose, planted in 1885. It’s trunk has a circumference of 12 feet, and it covers 8,000 square feet of space. It has grown up and over the roof of an inn and is now walled off for protection. Visitors can see it for an admission fee. This rose “bush” is well over a hundred years old and a real phenomenon.
The Boot Hill Graveyard contains the aftermath of the 1881 O.K. Corral gunfight. Graves of those who died in the fight include Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers. Men who died with their boots on were buried here, meaning they were hanged or died in a gun fight. There were about 300 men interred here after dying in this manner; the cemetery stopped adding graves in 1883, except for a few after that. The town wisely decided to restore it in 1940, about 57 years later.
The most “wicked” entertainment venue of the 1880s was the Bird Cage, a theater with “cribs” used by prostitutes and their customers. The cribs were situated on balconies on either side of the stage and had privacy curtains, although everyone knew the activities occurring behind the curtains. Some very famous entertainers of the time performed at the Bird Cage, like Lillian Russell, Eddie Foy, Sr. and Lilly Langtry.
A poker game that lasted almost eight and half years went on night and day everyday until the Bird Cage closed down in 1889. Notable players over the years were Doc Holliday, Diamond Jim Brady, Bat Masterson and George Hearst. The Bird Cage closed down when the town deflated after the loss of the silver mines. Many original parts of the interior are on view and may seem a bit eerie, but it is fun to see the table where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday played faro.
The Old Butterfield Stagecoach provides a narrated tour through Old Tombstone and takes about 20 minutes. The Tombstone Courthouse, from 1882, has a museum with exhibits of significant places and events in the town’s boom years. The gallows that sits right outside the courthouse is a reproduction since the original one burned in 1912, but it is clear that hangings were held there.
Somewhere around the third weekend in October, the Helldorado Days festival, begun in 1929, is held in Tombstone. A family-friendly carnival is set up, and there are gunfight reenactments for this event, too. Street entertainment and even fashion shows are part of the celebration, and kids can go in the saloons during the day if accompanied by parents. Allen Street looks like the 1880s with cowboys and stagecoaches traversing the main throughway.
Even the restaurants in Tombstone are historical landmarks. The Longhorn Restaurant is the longest continually operating dining establishment in town, featuring BBQ pork, ribs and steak. The Crystal Palace Saloon, from 1882, has a family menu of burgers, pizzas and soup and salad, but also high quality steak and fish. It is also a full service bar with domestic and foreign beer. Big Nose Kate’s Saloon started out as a house of ill repute in 1881, but now is a restaurant and bar serving big stuffed sandwiches, burgers and pizza. Who knows who sat in these places?
After a few sassparillas in the saloon, visitors may want to take advantage of the many hiking trails around Tombstone. The scenery is right out of the old western films, and it is spectacular. Mountains near Tombstone are prime scenic spots with panoramic views of the desert. There are day-long hiking tours and several-days tours with backpacking.
Horseback riding may be an easier way to see the countryside around town, and distance is not as much of an issue for horses as it is for hikers. Some trail rides end up in Tombstone and some follow Wyatt Earp’s Vendetta Ride that he made after two of his brothers were shot to death.
Birding is highly recommended in the mountains around Tombstone, and there is a wide variety of birds to observe. Camping, mountain biking and lake fishing are other alternatives for outdoor recreation in this area.
Western sunsets, mountain and desert vistas, outdoor recreation and the old historic town of Tombstone combine to make a memorable vacation for tourists of all ages. Make plans now to see one of America’s wild west towns and experience living history in and around Tombstone.