Tombstone 1881 – Photo by C.S Fly
Tombstone in 1881
Tombstone was founded by Ed Schieffelin in the year 1879 in the southeast corner of Arizona Territory, just 30 miles north of the U.S. – Mexican border. The town was actually named after Schieffelin’s mining claim, “Tombstone”. Many of his acquaintances thought that he would end up dead looking for silver in this harsh and dangerous land.

Silver is what brought this town to life. It sets above the Tough Nut Mine, which along with many other mines, became the largest silver producing area in the Arizona Territory. Between 1877 and 1890, somewhere between 40 to 85 million dollars worth of silver was eked out of the ground beneath Tombstone. During the first seven years of Tombstone’s existence, the population of the town grew from 100 to 14,000 individuals.

A lot of problems are created when a town grows that fast, and Tombstone was no exception. Besides the physical problems that come by building a town quickly, such as town planning, acquiring proper building materials, transportation problems, sanitation, etc., there were simmering tension and aggravations in the air. Class conflicts arose and played a major role in shaping Tombstone’s destiny. On one side were the mine owners, business owners, townsfolk, tradesmen and lawmen. On the other side were the “Cowboys” – a group of outlaws that wrecked havoc in the area by committing crimes such as horse thefts, cattle rustling, robberies, smuggling across the border, and shootings in town. The term “cowboy” referred to this reckless band of outlaws, and it was many years before the term gained respectability. A rancher or cattle herder was greatly offended if called a “cowboy”.

Eventually, the tension between the cowboys and the townspeople set off a chain of events that led to the most famous gunfight in the Wild West – “the Gunfight at the OK Corral”. This took place on Oct 26, 1881 and Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, along with the infamous Doc Holiday, killed three cowboys, Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton. But, this is another story.

So, with the “Gunfight at the Ok Corral” solidifying Tombstone’s place in history, life continued on. In spite of being situated in a remote area between Dragoon Mountains to the East and the Whetstone and Huachuca Mountains to the West, and consequently, many, many miles from civilization, the town became quite cosmopolitan. By the 1880s, there were four churches, a school, an opera house, fancy restaurants and a bowling alley catering to the upper crust of society. The miners and cowboys could choose their diversions from 110 saloons, 14 gambling establishments and numerous brothels throughout the business district. While the “high society” enjoyed opera and performances by famous actors, actresses, and singers at the Schieffelin Opera House, the cowboys and miners made themselves happy at the Birdcage Theatre, considered the wildest and most wicked spot between New Orleans and San Francisco.

In spite of two destructive fires in 1881 and 1882, the town survived and continued to prosper. However, silver, the cause of Tombstone’s rise, also became the agent for its decline. Water began seeping into the mines in 1800 and despite the early success of draining, a fire at the pumping station ended the effort. This setback, coupled with the decline in the price of silver to $.90 an ounce caused the mines to begin laying off workers and closing. By 1890 the population had dropped from a high of about 10,000 down to only 1,900 people. Being the county seat of Cochise County saved Tombstone from becoming another ghost town.

Today, Tombstone is home to about 1,500 individuals of which many make their living by catering to the 450,000 plus tourists that visit the town made famous by the “Gunfight at the Ok Corral”. Yes, the corral still stands and is host to reenactments of the gunfight every day. Many of the buildings and sites that were once the haunts of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday are there to experience. Famous Allen Street is home to many of the notorious saloons such as the Crystal Palace and Big Nose Kate’s Saloon. One can still see the bullet holes made by rowdy cowboys at the Bird Cage Theatre. The Longhorn Restaurant, Schieffelin’s Mine, and of course, Boot Hill Cemetery, with the graves of Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury are all great stops to experience Tombstone’s Western Heritage.

For more information on visiting Tombstone, please visit Tombstone Web.

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