Monday, November 13, 2017

Tombstone, Arizona

The Town Too Dead To Be Tough

Prospector Ed Shieffelin had served briefly as a scout for the US Army.  When fellow scout Al Sieber learned he was prospecting in the Indian-occupied lands of Santa Cruz Valley he told Shieffelin, “The only rock you will find out there will be your own tombstone.”

So, when Shieffelin staked a silver claim there, he whimsically named the claim Tombstone.  In 1879 that name transferred to the town that sprang up on a plateau above the mine. By the mid-1880s mines in the area had produced between $40 and $85 million (several billions in today’s dollars) in silver bullion, and Tombstone had a population of 7,000 people, making it one of the largest towns between St. Louis and San Francisco.  Especially since that official population number omitted several thousand Chinese and Mexican residents.

The booming town was only 30 miles from the Mexican border, so cattle rustling and smuggling were as popular occupations as mining.  Especially so with a loosely organized gang of criminals who called themselves the Cow-Boys and wore red sashes to identify themselves.  The San Francisco Examiner called them, “The most reckless class of outlaws in that wild country…infinitely worse than the ordinary robber.”

The Earp brothers arrived there in December of 1879, and before long came into conflict with the Cow-Boys.  What drove their animosity was essentially politics.  The Earps were staunch Union men, and Republicans; the criminal element and most rancher-rustlers in the area were Confederate sympathizers and Democrats.  Wyatt, a famous lawman from Dodge City, was soon named deputy Pima County sheriff for the area. And, since this area was soon to become a separate county, Deputy Earp appeared to have the inside track to be elected Cochise County sheriff, a job coveted by Cow-Boy ally and fellow Democrat Johnny Behan.  The friction between the men accelerated after Earp and Behan’s live-in girlfriend Josie Marcus began keeping company. Hoping to smooth things over, Josie asked Wyatt to step down as deputy and Behan did become sheriff.

Finally, after some Cow-Boys tried to rob a stage loaded with silver near Contention City, killing popular driver Ed Philpot, the feud boiled over into the famous shootout.  No, not the one at the O.K. Corral.  It actually occurred in an empty lot off Fremont St. not far away. So it should really be called the gunfight near the O.K. Corral. Or maybe, the gunfight one street over from the O.K. Corral

Jane Moore Photo (no relation)

The men killed in the shootout, brothers Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, were buried in the town’s Boothill Cemetery, which can be explored today without an admission fee (after you pass through the souvenir shop).  The most famous grave, no less, is probably that of Lester Moore.

Here Lies
Lester Moore
Four Slugs
From a .44
No Les
No More

Boothill was so named because most of the people buried there died with their boots on.  It is one of a number of Boothill cemeteries in various western mining towns, but this one is clearly the best known.

After the O.K. Corral dust-up, Cow-Boys seriously wounded Virgil from ambush and killed Morgan Earp the same way.  Wyatt, realizing that the killers were unlikely to be brought to justice, got a US Marshall’s badge and conducted his Vendetta Ride, killing the four men he considered responsible.  The Earps then moved on, dogged by a trumped-up warrant Johnny Behan issued naming them as chief suspects in the killing of their friend Philpot.  Peace was restored to the area under a new sheriff, Texas John Slaughter.     

But the mines soon flooded and silver prices plummeted, and the town nearly joined other area mining towns like Fairbank, Charleston, and Contention, which faded into ghosts. But it hung on by a shoestring as the county seat of Cochise County.  By 1910 there were only 646 residents left.  Today, the Town To Tough To Die has been resurrected by tourism, and boasts a population close to 1400, about ten percent of what it had in its heyday. And the county seat has moved to Bisbee. 

Unlike other famous towns, like Dodge City where nothing remains of its wild west history, Tombstone looks much like its earlier self.  The National Park Service says, however, that after two fires razed the town, not much of what remains is original.  The NPS says that historic markers have been placed on new buildings; historic features have been replaced rather than restored, and that historically incompatible features, such as hitching rails, have been placed in the historic district.  Still, it looks like what you would expect Tombstone to look like.

The Crystal Palace Saloon, my favorite Tombstone burger joint, was rebuilt in 1964 using photographs of what it looked like in 1881.  It features a 45-foot long mahogany bar like the one the Earps could have used.  And the Occidental Saloon location, the other saloon where Wyatt owned a gaming interest, is a clothing shop now after having burned in big fires of 1881 and 1882. The 1882 fire was the worst.  All that remained of the O.K. Corral was its sign.

The center of tourism today is Allen Street, now covered with dirt and closed to traffic, it is lined with shops and a few saloons and restaurants. Big Nose Kate’s Saloon is on the site of the Grand Hotel.  And you can see a gunfight show staged daily off Tough Nut Street.  Fremont street to the north of Allen is now a state highway, but offers some historic sites of its own.  The City Hall was also a fire station, claimed to be the first firehouse built in the U.S.  Schiefflin Hall was once the opera house.  And down the street to the west, just before where the
Wyatt stands guard next to his modest home, which was only a
block from where he faced down the Cow-Boys in his famous gunfight
highway bends, you will find the modest home of Wyatt Earp, built on the mining claim he and his brothers owned.

Ok, so it is touristy.  But still fun.

The Birdcage Saloon, a favorite haunt of the Cow-Boys, operated 24/7 every day of the year until it closed in 1889.  The New York Times called it, “the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast.”  

You can now take a tour of the Birdcage sin center for an admission fee.  Allen Street marked a divide.  The southeast side was the rough part of town.  The red light district.  

The railroad never made it to Tombstone, so when the Earps wanted to take a train they went down to the San Pedro River and the railroad junction called Fairbank.  Fairbank was at the crossroad of railroad lines going to Guaymas, Mexico, Nogales, Mexico and Tucson. Fairbank is partly preserved today, minus the train tracks. Transportation was so good there that Fairbank residents of the 1880s reportedly dined on fresh oysters, shipped to them on ice.

The railroad hub of Fairbank now sits deserted not far from Tombstone.
The gravel path at the right once held steel tracks

Every so often, a movie gets made about Tombstone and its famous or infamous residents.  My Darling Clementine starred Henry Fonda as Wyatt and was filmed near Monument Valley, Utah on the desert site where the Goulding airport now stands.  My favorite was Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt and Val Kilmer as Doc.  It was filmed about 30 miles from the real scene, at a movie location called Mescal, which is owned by the people who have the Old Tucson movie set west of Tucson.  You can’t visit Mescal, but trust me, it looks more like Tombstone than does Tombstone itself. 

Doc, Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan take a stroll.

(Copyright 1993 Hollywood Pictures)

Mescal's main street.  The board building in the foreground was the interior set
for Wyatt's Oriental Saloon. At the far back is Gene Hackman's saloon
from The Quick and the Dead

Text and photos copyright John B. Taylor, 2017 (except two identified)