The gunslingers face each other, sneers crossing their faces. Taunts and threats fly like the black hats and coats of the cowboy rustlers who try to rouse the gunmen across from them – the lawmen and the U.S. Marshall.
Voices get louder, and dusty heat rises on the deserted street. Suddenly the street explodes in a volley of gunfire. Men fall, dead, their bodies twitching in the dirt. The lucky ones re-holster their guns and race away, leaving the dead to the buzzards and eerie silence.
Time freezes for a moment, and the audience disperses, the actors return to bow and pose for photos. The crowd returns to the bustling boardwalks of Tombstone, Arizona, filled with museums, tourist shops, costumed cowboys and ladies dressed in 1880s clothing.
Over a century has passed since the gun battle between the infamous Earp and Clanton cowboys on October 26, 1881, at the entrance to the O.K. Corral, a blacksmith shop and livery at that time. The O.K. Corral shootout claims its place as one of the most famous gun battles in Wild West history. U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp and his brothers Wyatt and Morgan along with John “Doc” Holliday (a ruthless gambler emboldened with terminal tuberculosis) faced the notorious outlaws, Ike and Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury – all suspected cattle rustlers – and their friend Billy Claiborne. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne fled.
Frank and Tom McLaury died in the shootout, while Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday fled from town as soon as the dust settled. Although the infamous duel happened over 100 years ago, it is still the talk of Tombstone. They restage the fight for tourists by firing blanks every weekend.
Surrounded by the blazing beautiful Sonoran Desert, mining gave Tombstone its start. Prospector Ed Scheifflin discovered silver there in 1877, and staked a mining claim called Tombstone with ironic humor since a soldier weary of fighting the Apache Indians had warned him “all you’ll find in those hills is your tombstone.”
The name of Tombstone remained, and the area lured adventurers from all over the globe. By the early 1880s, Tombstone had a population of 10,000. The silver boom collapsed at the turn of the 20th century, and within 20 years, Tombstone’s boomtown days were over. The town has survived ever since as a tourist mecca and has rightfully earned the slogan “the town too tough to die.”
With a steady but growing population of 1,750, the town has succeeded in drawing 350,000 visitors a year, ranking as the second most popular destination in Arizona next to the Grand Canyon, which draws three to four million people a year.
It’s a town that is a museum and a museum that is a town. But what else makes this place with its violent Old West history so intriguing?
National Historic Landmark
In 1962 the United States Government declared Tombstone a National Historic Landmark as one of the best examples of a western mining town in existence today.
“No other town in the west reflects this kind of unique architectural significance, or has this kind of contribution to western history. It holds the title as the town with the last great silver strike” says Art Austin, local historian and park manager. “But,” he continues, “it’s debatable whether Tombstone would have held this historical standing without the O.K. Corral shoot out.”
Austin explains that existing records support his belief that the shootout at the O.K. Corral was not a gunfight, but a police action. Controversy still exists on this issue. He says the event has been dramatized and has become ingrained in the public’s mind as a prime example of good confronting evil, of the lawmen versus the criminals, which is part of the value system we hold as a culture. The challenge, Austin emphasizes, is to separate the fiction from facts.
This 1800s six-passenger Concord Stagecoach at the Tombstone Coffee & Tea Co. was used in a variety of John Wayne and Gene Autry movies like The Lone Ranger, Maverick, Cisco Kid and several Bonanza episodes.
Much of the excitement over the O.K. Corral comes from the romanticized attention it has received from Hollywood in movies dating back to 1932. Recent movies like Tombstone (1993) starring Kurt Russell, and Wyatt Earp (1994) starring Kevin Costner, have presented the legend most realistically, yet not without inaccuracies.
Discovering Genuine Tombstone
Finding the true gems of Tombstone doesn’t happen without some digging. Without any effort, you’ll easily find Tombstone’s mementos — staged gunfights, stagecoach rides, or pretend lynching of tourists on cobbled streets. But it’s worth searching for the town’s authentic western roots.
The 1882 distinctive red-brick Courthouse, a building on the National Register of Historic Places, has archival records and research materials that you won’t find anywhere else. It features exhibits such as rare documents, diagrams and varied accounts of the O.K. Corral shoot out. On the second floor of the courthouse, you can enter into a 1880s courtroom and view a gallows restored to its original form.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is the oldest Protestant church in Arizona still standing on its earliest site with original stained glass, and elegant lighting fixtures that came from a 19th Century whaling ship.
Boothill Cemetery, on the northern end of town, is filled with Tombstone’s infamous dead, like Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury of the O.K. Corral. It’s authentic, even though it appears somewhat phony with the tourist shop entry and freshly painted wooden markers, some that are too clever: “Here lies Lester Moore; Four slugs from a .44; no les, no more.”
On the opposite side of town – both morally and geographically – you will find the Bird Cage Theatre, once known as the most wicked place between New Orleans and San Francisco. Booze, prostitution, dancing, poker and casino game tables all contributed to unexpected brawls leading to the bullet holes still in the walls.
Fourteen cribs (or cages) above the dance floor where prostitutes plied their trade still have shreds of original wallpaper. It is Tombstone’s only building preserved in its original state from 1881. Other sites have had to undergo more restoration
So should you get in line to visit the O.K. Corral? The place has some interesting historic sites, like a genuine blacksmith’s forge, horse stalls, the studio gallery of early Arizona photographer C.S. Fly with historic photos of Apache Geronimo and Doc Holliday’s room.
But whether you go to the staged gunfight depends on what you like seeing for entertainment. The 30-minute film called the Historama offers onlookers a more accurate depiction of the action at the O.K. Corral.
Whether you’re a western history buff or new to this era, the streets of Tombstone offer a unique chance to see and touch an old western mining town as it once may have been.
IF YOU GO:
On a mesa between the Huachuca and the Dragoon Mountains of southeastern Arizona, Tombstone is 30 miles (48 km) from the Mexican Border at an altitude of 4,500 feet (1,372 m). Winter and spring are the most popular times to visit since summers can get too hot.
Just a few blocks away from the main attractions, you’ll find clean and spacious rooms at Tombstone Motel, at 520-457-3478 or 888-455-3478, www.tombstonemotel.com.
Visit www.tombstone.org for events calendar and local accommodations, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to receive additional information from the Tombstone Chamber of Commerce.
Remember to stop by the Rose Tree Inn Museum and Books, the home of the Guinness Book of World Records’ largest rose tree, a 119-year Lady Banksia covering 9,000 square feet. Open daily 9-5, 520-457-3326, www.tombstonemotels.com/tree