Back in 1877, when a soldier told prospector Ed Schieffelin the only rock he was likely to find in the rugged, bone-dry hills of southeast Arizona was his tombstone, little did he know he was naming one of the most famous towns in the chronicles of Western lore.
Actually Ed found silver, a bunch of it, and in a nod to irony and the military man, he named his claim Tombstone. Soon the boomtown that grew up around the mines took the same name and the Wild West was in full swing.
We made our way to this remote corner of Arizona for a firsthand look at whether the west is still wild in these parts. As soon as we hit town we heard gunfire. Sounds pretty wild. Scurrying a block over to the old main drag, Allen Street, we found some ornery looking hombres toting shooting irons. More shots, and by the time the dust cleared there were several bodies lying in the middle of the road. Just like the movies.
Also just like the movies was the fact that they all got up and walked away a few minutes later. Ah yes, welcome to Tombstone, “The Town too Tough to Die,” with staged gunfight actors that are also too tough to die.
Wow, in town less than ten minutes and we’ve already seen a shootout! And this one wasn’t even at the OK Corral.
The old storefronts along Allen Street look like a movie set. Many are authentic, in fact the area was designated a National Historic Landmark District back in 1961 because it was so well preserved. Since then tourist traps have endangered that designation by putting up new additions on historic buildings, electric signs as well as other anachronistic materials, and even fake dates on modern structures. Hmm, sniffing out the real history may take a little wily prospecting. With nearly half a million tourists a year visiting, we’ll need to dig through motherloads of the truly cheesy-touristy to find that vein of historical ore.
In 1882, the Bird Cage Theater was proclaimed “The Wildest, Wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast” by the New York Times, this place has preserved the “real” old west with a minimum of schmaltz. Preserved is the right term too, since from the time the doors closed in 1889 until 1934 it remained untouched, never opened.
Today, as a museum, it stands basically the same. The famous namesake cages, where the girls of the night did their business, still hang above the bar / casino floor. In the basement, the site of the world’s longest running card game is the main attraction. Legend has it that the game never stopped for almost eight and a half years.
Throughout the building bullet holes pock the walls and ceilings, one hundred and forty by last count. This was a rough joint where twenty-six rowdies met their make, running at a rate of three or four deaths a year for the short time the theater was open. No wonder they claim it’s haunted.
No wild west town could have made a name for itself without the help of a newspaper to immortalize and sensationalize the events of the day. Tombstone had, and still has, The Epitaph. Today the paper’s office serves more as a museum than a newsroom, but there still is an edition of the Epitaph printed once a month. Not surprisingly, it is the only known newspaper to ever have that name. As the original editor, John Clum stated, “No Tombstone is complete without its Epitaph.”
Mr. Clum had quite the adventurous life. He went west from New York with the Army Signal Corps, then became an Indian agent in Arizona, where he knew Geronimo. Later, in Tombstone, he founded The Epitaph and became mayor. It was in Tombstone where he met and became friends with Wyatt Earp.
The two men renewed their friendship years later in Alaska, when Clum was appointed Postal Inspector for the new northern territory. Earp was running a saloon in Nome, in keeping with his attachment to the wildest frontier towns he could find.
Speaking of one Wyatt Earp, it was about time for the daily reenactment of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. We moseyed on over to the famous site, bought our tickets and had a few minutes to survey the displays before the shooting started.
It was here that we stumbled upon the best attraction ever in the history of the Wild West, Tombstone’s Historama. We entered the theater with no idea what to expect. But then a technological marvel appeared before our eyes. Scenes from Tombstone’s early days, depicted with toy cowboys, indians, miners, model houses, trees, tee pees, and little light bulb campfires on a paper mache mountain were magically rotating on the stage. Periodically a screen would drop down for some old western movie clips while the mountain turned to the next view.
It is hard to even imagine how this could get any better, but the piece d’resistance was the fact that the whole thing was narrated by Vincent Price — a real “thriller” for us. The true beauty of the Historama is that not a thing about it has changed since it was created back in 1964.
We almost feel like we should leave Tombstone, have the Historama be our last impression, but we came to see a gunfight and a gunfight we shall see.
The reenactment of the gunfight at OK Corral takes place in a walled off area purported to be the location of the actual event. Although we’re pretty sure there weren’t bleachers here back on October 26, 1881. After a few skits to warm up the crowd, we get to the main attraction.
The background story is acted out briefly, explaining the ongoing feud between the Earp brothers, Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan, along with their buddy Doc Holliday and some local “Cowboys,” the Clanton brothers, Ike and Billy, along with Frank and Tom McLaury. Now in these parts back then, when cowboy was capitalized in the paper, it was often synonymous with rustler, so as marshal, Virgil Earp had been after these boys for a while. When they rode into town, he deputized his brothers and Doc — figuring a fight was a brewing. After they refused check their weapons according to town law, the proverbial excrement hit the fan.
Unlike the long, drawn out affairs in the movies, there was no hiding behind wagons or falling off of buildings. It was all over in less than thirty seconds, with Billy Clanton, and Frank and Tom McLaury lying dead while everyone else, except Wyatt, was wounded. The fact that Earp was unharmed in the havoc probably contributed more to his legendary status than any other event in his life.
With the gunfight behind us, we had a hankering for a libation to calm our nerves. A visit to Big Nose Kate’s Saloon was in order. Named for Doc Holliday’s girlfriend, who is also believed to have been Tombstone’s first lady of the evening, this is the spot for some old west fun. Drinking, dancing, saloon girls, music and the movie Tombstone playing on a never ending loop on TVs throughout the room. Just in case anybody might forget where they were for a minute.
For all its reputation as the wildest town west of The Pecos, Tombstone is downright tame after dark nowadays. After a stint at Kate’s, we wandered across the empty, windswept Allen Street to The Chrystal Palace, which looked to be the only other open establishment in town.
Big Nose Kate’s bills themselves as “The Best Cowboy Bar in The West” and The Chrystal Palace claims to be “The Most Famous Saloon in the West.” While both are plum western, we have to give the nod to The Palace, since we were treated by one of their local patrons to some of the finest, completely unintelligible, authentic frontier gibberish ever spewed forth since Gabby Hayes graced the silver screen. In fact many of the townsfolk seem to get into character and stay that way. We saw tons of them just hanging out on the street or washing down the trail dust in a favorite watering hole.
On our way out of town the next morning, we had to make one last stop, Boot Hill. Many an old west town had its own Boot Hill cemetery for those who “died with their boots on,” but this is perhaps the most famous.
There is some attempt at preserving a bit of reverence for the deceased, but the touristy overtones prevail. Souvenirs with some of the cute epitaphs from the graveyard are on sale along with all kinds of other Tombstone swag. Somehow tee shirts with “Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs From a forty-four. No Les No More” don’t inspire the kind of reverence one might hope for in a final resting place. But then whoever said that Tombstone was restful back then.
The Boot Hill Visitors Guide details the demise of most of the inhabitants, and there certainly seems to be more than the average share of murder and mayhem. Shootings, stabbings, hangings, brawls, poisonings, falling down mine shafts, scalpings — not to mention the usual diseases and pestilence.
It was enough to make a body want to get out of Dodge, or Tombstone, as the case may be.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com