Tombstone, A.T., History and Commentary


The town of Tombstone is shrouded in myth, folklore, and legend perhaps rightfully so, perhaps not. There are three Old West towns that stand out in legend and history; they are Deadwood, Dodge City and Tombstone. Tombstone, of course, is my passion and focus. To me, its true history, not legend, personifies the Old West; it has it all.

Thanks to the Hollywood movies and the numerous books, good and bad, the old mining camp has taken on an air of non-stop gunfights and violence as if that is all that happened in Tombstone. Such is not the case; the original old mining camp slumbers now, but once, long ago, it was magnificent! The real history of Tombstone would make for a better movie than anything Hollywood has produced to date, but as we find in much of history, the legend has usurped the real history.

The following is a brief history of the old mining camp. Born in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, Ed Schieffelin, that determined and near penniless prospector, made the initial silver discovery in the Tombstone hills in 1877. It took him almost a year after this discovery to find his brother, Albert, in north central Arizona and gather enough money and provisions to return to the San Pedro River Valley in southeast Arizona. So, early in 1878 he partnered and returned with his brother and Richard Gird, a well-known mining man, who had assayed Ed's ore samples and saw great potential and a chance to become wealthy. The news traveled fast and in no time others began to join the rush for mineral and wealth in southeast Arizona.

Watervale, later known as Lower Town, was the original primitive town site. It is located about two miles northwest of the Tombstone we know today. Because of its close proximity to the mining activities and access to water, which sold for three cents a gallon, it seemed like the best location. Within a year the town would be relocated to Goose Flats also known as Upper Town. The new town site was laid out by surveyor Solon Allis and is as we find it today. The main east/west streets being named Fremont, Allen, and Tough Nut and the north/south streets being First through Seventh. By this time, in early 1879, Tombstone was a town of shanties, tent saloons and boarding houses with people from all walks of life; all of them there to get rich if possible. Other town sites were promoted in the areas around the new town site but they never caught on.

Despite corrupt officials and town lot disputes, Tombstone progressed. During 1879, businessmen and women opened general stores, butcher shops, restaurants, and of course saloons, brothels and all things associated with them. Tent boarding houses eventually became solid adobe hotels, a permanent post office was established, and the Weekly Nugget newspaper, referred to as the Democratic Party organ, presented its first issue on October 2, 1879. Of all the progressive events, one of the most important was the attention and commitment of eastern and western venture capitalists and professional mining men to Tombstone. They had been involved since 1878 and in 1879 massive development, mine purchasing, and mill construction on the San Pedro River had already begun. Ed Schieffelin his brother and Richard Gird did in fact become very wealthy. People and money were pouring into Tombstone. Hard rock Cornish miners, tradesmen, laborers, freighters, gamblers, saloon keepers, prostitutes, lawyers, doctors, professional engineers, millmen, and lumbermen were arriving daily. Boomers, the term given to those who followed the mining camp boomtown phenomena were there too, and in great numbers.

In early December of 1879, without the fan-fare depicted in the movies, frontier gambler and part time lawman, Wyatt Earp, with his brothers James and Virgil and their common-law wives Mattie, Bessie, and Allie arrived in Tombstone. On November 27th, 1879, as they passed through Tucson on their way to Tombstone, Virgil received an appointment as a Deputy US Marshal for southern Arizona by US Marshal for the Arizona Territory, Crawley Dake. Upon his arrival in Tombstone, it is fair to say most of the people there, at the time, had never heard of Wyatt Earp nor did they know who he was. Doc Holliday and his common-law wife, Mary Katherine, and Wyatt's brother, Morgan, and his common-law wife, Louisa, would arrive in early 1880. Eventually, the Earp's youngest brother, Warren, would briefly join his four brothers.

As 1880 opened, Tombstone was progressing rapidly. Another newspaper, The Tombstone Epitaph, Republican oriented, made its debut. In that year the Cosmopolitan Hotel, located on the north side of Allen Street between 4th and 5th Street, added a second story. The magnificent three story Grand Hotel, located on the south side of Allen, almost across the street from the Cosmopolitan Hotel, was completed also. Both of these hotels were Tombstone show pieces. They conveyed to the visiting mining men, investors and the common traveler the town's progress and wealth. Restaurants with the finest accoutrements and delicacies were common. Ice cream parlors were the rage. On April 12, of 1880 the Tombstone Common Council adopted Ordinance #9. It prohibited any person, other than a officer of the law, to have or carry in the Village of Tombstone, any firearms, or any other dangerous weapon, concealed about his person without a written permit from the mayor. Violators faced a $50.00 fine or 30 days in jail. Also in 1880, the numerous Tombstone saloons began to serve the finest liquors, beers and wines. Ice was available from Tucson and shipped to Tombstone on a regular basis. Bartenders were "mixologists." Mint Julep, Whiskey cocktails, Gin Slings, and other exotic drinks were common.

On March 20th, 1880, the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in nearby Tucson. In a matter of months it progressed to Benson and eventually a spur was built to Contention and later to Fairbank, just a few miles from Tombstone. Tombstone, however, would not have a railroad until 1903. With the arrival of the railroad close to Tombstone, the town's politicians and businessmen tried very hard to make the mining town as progressive and cosmopolitan as possible by providing the finest merchandise available for resale. The sky was the limit to many of them! Some of the residents enjoyed the convenience of having a better supply and selection of goods; other residents didn't pay much attention. It must be remembered; Tombstone always was a self-centered sort of place. As a mining town, its very existence depended less on social commitments and norms than on a steady ore supply. No one realistically considered a long-term future there. Mines and boomtowns, generally, were not permanent.

Pima County Sheriff Charlie Shibell, in Tucson, hired Wyatt Earp as one of his regular deputies for Tombstone on July 27th 1880 and accepted his resignation on November 11 of the same year. Wyatt Earp's record as a Pima County Deputy Sheriff in Tombstone was honorable and efficient. He resigned, hoping eventually to be named Cochise County Sheriff. Sheriff Shibell, however, a loyal Democrat and a career government employee, immediately appointed fellow Democrat John H. Behan to replace Republican Wyatt Earp as a full time deputy in Tombstone. The politically well connected Behan went on to be appointed the first Cochise County Sheriff - an event that did not sit well with the politically inept Wyatt Earp.

Tombstone saw its share of gunplay in 1880. One of the episodes was the tragic October shooting death of thirty-one year old Town Marshal, Fred White, erroneously depicted in the 1993 movie Tombstone starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, as a pot bellied old man; he was neither. Behind where the Bird Cage is located today, the young Marshal confronted Curly Bill Brocius and others, while shooting their pistols randomly, and ordered Curly Bill to hand over his pistol. Marshal White grabbed the barrel while Curly Bill still had his finger on the trigger. Wyatt Earp, at the time a Pima County Deputy Sheriff in Tombstone, suddenly came from behind and pulled Curly Bill back. Of course the gun went off; they called it an accident but one can't help but think the incident might have had a different outcome had the two lawmen not been pulling in different directions.

As the turbulent year of 1881 dawned, Tombstone was at its pinnacle. The Tombstone Epitaph newspaper reported the town's population, at the end of 1881, to be 5,956 people. Tombstone's population was, to say the least, fluid and varied at any given time, thus population quotes must be taken with a grain of salt. Certainly, in my opinion, a population of 5,956 people would be the most Tombstone ever had. The mines and mills were producing silver bullion in great quantities. In February, Tombstone would become the county seat of the newly formed Cochise County. The Miners Exchange Building, a virtual mining stock exchange, was built in the new prestigious Gird Block on Fremont Street. The impressive Schieffelin Hall was also completed. Important mining men and eastern capitalists filled the fine hotels. They demanded the best in food, drink and accommodations. Tombstone strived to fill the bill and fresh oysters, vegetables, fruit, and fish were common. St. Louis beer, Sonoma wines, French champagnes, and the finest liquors were carried in the better saloons and restaurants. The town had progressed dramatically. The Tombstone Social Club sponsored dances and benefits and traveling shows and plays were presented at Schieffelin Hall. Many fraternal organizations were formed. Political parties became more prominent and vocal. The anti-Chinese movement, encouraged by John P. Clum's Epitaph newspaper, seemed to gain favor and galvanize many of the citizens. At the time, there were over 24 nationalities represented in Tombstone. Of those, 245 residents were Chinese. More than any other time there was, perhaps false but nonetheless, a sense of community in the old mining camp.

Make no mistake, however, there was a genuine fear among Tombstone residents of Geronimo and his band of Apache resistors. After Geronimo's escape from the San Carlos Reservation and the subsequent Indian depredations taking place in southern Arizona and northern Mexico, Tombstone residents feared the Apaches perhaps more so than the stage robberies, shootings, and cattle rustling attributed to the so-called "cowboys."

The politics and personality clashes between the "cowboys" and the Earps eventually culminated in the Street Fight near the OK Corral on Fremont St. on October 26, 1881. The participants were Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday against brothers Tom and Frank McLaury and nineteen year old Billy Clanton. Billy's older brother Ike, who many say provoked the deadly situation, fled from the small lot as the fight began. One hundred and thirty years later, there are those who still search and delve into the minutiae of the before and after of the street fight when five minutes after the now historic fight took place in 1881, residents of Tombstone, who actually witnessed it, could not agree on what happened and argued about who was at fault. Surely then, 130 years later, how can we ever know what really happened? We can only speculate. Today, Tombstone seems to be defined only by this so-called OK Corral Gunfight. In reality the citizens, at the time it took place, were very divided on who was at fault and considered the nationwide publicity hardly beneficial to business or the town.

In late March of 1881, water was struck at the 520-foot level in the main shaft of the Sulphuret Mine. Mining engineers were unprepared for this, since they did not expect to strike water until the 1000-foot level. While many tried to put a positive outlook on this occurrence, professional mining men and miners saw the writing on the wall. There would be no deep mining in Tombstone without incurring considerable expense but the mines kept producing and the Tombstone economy kept booming. On June 22, 1881, however, Tombstone suffered its first devastating fire. Starting in the Arcade Saloon, it consumed all of the buildings for four blocks bordered by 5th Street and Fremont and 7th Street and Tough Nut. The businesses, especially the saloons, quickly rebuilt using adobe blocks while improving the furnishings in the process. It was back to business in a few months but water was beginning to flood other mines too. As 1881 came to a close, the Bird Cage Theater, owned by William and Lottie Hutchinson, opened on December 26th, 1881. Located just west of Tombstone's sizable red light district, the bawdy Bird Cage acquired a reputation as a place where anything goes and was frequented by Tombstone's lower class. Two days after the Bird Cage opened, on the night of December 28, Virgil Earp would be shot-gunned by unknown and concealed assassins as he walked across the intersection of 5th and Allen Streets, permanently losing the use of his left arm. The day after, Wyatt Earp telegraphed US Marshal Crawley Dake and requested and received an appointment as a Deputy US Marshal for southern Arizona with the power to deputize. This was a very important appointment; it made his eventual Vendetta Ride legal!

The year 1882 saw the town begin construction on a new Cochise County Court House and Town Hall; the former being removed from any potential fire danger by being built on Tough Nut and Third Street and the latter being built on Fremont Street across from the Gird Block. To the dismay of some and applause of others, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were exonerated in Wells Spicer's court, after many long drawn out court appearances, of any wrong-doing related to the October 1881 Street Fight. Morgan and Virgil Earp's wounds had healed from the Street Fight but Virgil, was still slowly recovering from his debilitating December 28th assassination attempt. On March 18, 1882, Morgan Earp was assassinated, shot in the lower back through a window in Campbell & Hatches Saloon on Allen Street while playing a game of pool. This event unleashed the much written-about Tombstone Vendetta Ride of the now Deputy US Marshal Wyatt Earp and marked the end of the Earp families twenty-eight month residency in Tombstone. By the end of March, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the other Vendetta riders were high-tailing it for New Mexico with warrants on their heads for the murders of Frank Stilwell in the Tucson train yards, Florentino Cruz at a wood camp east of Tombstone, and the alleged leader of the "cowboy gang" Curly Bill Brocious, although his body was never found. There may have been others killed, too. Neither Wyatt Earp nor any of his Vendetta Posse members were ever prosecuted for the crimes they committed during the so-called Vendetta Ride.

Of the hundreds of Tombstone books written, author and Earp/Tombstone authority, William B. Shillingberg says it best in his excellent book Tombstone, A.T., "What the Earps actually did fails to compare with the contributions made by local entrepreneurs or that army of nameless men who worked the mines. By contrast, the brothers and their enemies are remembered today only for specific acts of violence. Rising from some deep-rooted psychological urge to glorify such behavior, popular culture has reinvented the Earps, particularly Wyatt." Suffice to say many people in Tombstone were glad to see the Earps leave; some didn't care one way or the other, while others supported their actions.

On April 7, 1882, General of the Army, William T. Sherman and his entourage paid Tombstone a visit. It was a welcome retreat from the Earp problems the town had been experiencing. The new Tombstone mayor, John Carr, former Mayor John P. Clum, and other committee members had planned a great celebration and dinner for the dignitaries. Staying at the Grand Hotel, that evening they all walked across Allen St. to the most revered, Maison Doree Restaurant and heartily enjoyed Tombstone's hospitality. On April 10, two days after the General left Tombstone, the Maison Doree Restaurant presented its bill to the Tombstone Common Council. General Sherman's entourage and the local Tombstone politicos had consumed 26 dinners, 14 bottles of wine and 19 cigars and the next day 10 lunches, 5 bottles of wine and 8 cigars totaling $114.75. Life was good! The Council issued Warrant #188 and paid the bill in full. Considering the most experienced underground miner was making $4.00 a day in the Tombstone mines, this was a sizable amount. General Sherman and his entourage were given tours of the Tombstone mines and mills before leaving for Fort Huachuca the afternoon of April 8th. It was learned, however, that the General was also on a fact finding mission to Tombstone and southern Arizona for President Chester Arthur regarding the on going and increasing depredations across the border by Americans and Mexicans. These depredations continued and in fact increased in volume after the Earps left Tombstone. Thus putting an end to the myth and folklore that Wyatt Earp and his cohorts stopped the illegal rustling, robberies and other border crimes in southern Arizona by "forever" breaking up the "cowboy" gang in Cochise County. If anything, the forces of crime on both sides of the border, became even more organized and determined!

On May 26, 1882, Tombstone suffered its most devastating fire. It started in the water closet of the Tivoli Saloon, which was located close to the beautiful Grand Hotel. Within minutes, the Grand Hotel was gone as was the Cosmopolitan and Brown Hotels since the fire quickly jumped across Allen Street. Tombstone had lost all of its magnificent hotels almost in an instant and many other stalwart businesses, too. In my opinion, this fire, along with the flooding mines and the eventual declining price of silver marked the beginning of the end for Tombstone. Many businesses were lost and the owners decided not to rebuild so prominent businessmen moved on. In July of 1882, the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper reported Tombstone's population had decreased to 5,300 people; the decline had begun. Another hotel, the Occidental, was built in 1883 to accommodate the visiting mining men but the glory days were fading and it burned down in 1889.

Tombstone, however, continued on as a major mining center until approximately 1887. In 1884, labor strikes and wage reduction troubles led to miner unrest and many of the top-notch miners left Tombstone for better opportunities. Tombstone's population declined dramatically in the years to come, at its low point there were less than 700 people living there. Tombstone's historical buildings began to be reclaimed by the elements. Many of them had to be torn down, after the owners removed the roofs, so they could save on tax assessments.

In 1903, mining man E.B. Gage consolidated the Tombstone mines with major capital infusion from eastern investors. Tombstone was again hopeful of the possible resurgence, wealth, and romance of the "Old Days." As mentioned earlier, the El Paso Southwestern Railroad finally constructed a line to Tombstone; logical since the railroad was on its way to Douglas where major refining operations and a smelter were located. The mine consolidation was successful for a period, but water flooding the mines and huge pumps that malfunctioned put an end to this costly mining venture. Tombstone, again, fell into a state of disrepair. During World War One, the mining of the mineral Manganese gave Tombstone a much-needed boost; the 1915 state imposed prohibition of illegal alcohol, and the 1920 Volstad Act did not. In 1929, the Cochise County electorate voted to move the seat of government to Tombstone's rival town of Bisbee. This was the final devastating blow to the once great silver camp.

Stalwart Tombstone citizens, not ones to roll over and die, put their heads together and decided to capitalize on the old camp's colorful and historic past. It's saga was already being written about by author Walter Noble Burns, in his book Tombstone followed by William Breckenridge's book Helldorado and eventually Stuart Lake's most popular tome Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. The annual Helldorado celebration was born in 1929 and along with it, the saying "The Town To Tough To Die." In 1959, as if to give Tombstone another setback, the state of Arizona made Fremont Street into a four lane highway. This destroyed one of the town's most famous thoroughfares and forever changed the historic town's atmosphere; not to mention the approach the Earps and Holliday took to the site of the October 26, 1881 Street Fight. Ironically, after doing this, the State declared Tombstone a National Historic Site.

Very few original, first generation 1880s buildings remain in Tombstone today. Among the more prominent are Schieffelin Hall and Town Hall, both on Fremont St., the Cochise County Court House on Tough Nut and 3rd. St., of course the Bird Cage Theater on Allen St., along with the old Pima County Bank building on the southwest corner of Allen and 4th St., and the San Jose, Aztec and Garland Houses all on Fremont St. The building on the northeast corner of 5th St. and Allen is the old Oriental Saloon; Wyatt Earp dealt faro there. The west side of this building was scorched, not destroyed, by the 1882 fire and was repaired. It is an original building from that time period! The Crystal Palace called the Wehrfritz Brewery in 1882 and across the street from the Oriental was completely destroyed by the fire. Other surviving buildings are the old fire station and the 1903 train depot, now a library, on Tough Nut St. The Rose Tree Inn located at 4th St. and Tough Nut, has some very interesting and authentic Tombstone artifacts and is owned by a family that has been in Tombstone since its early days.

Once nearly forgotten Tombstone is now trapped in myth and legend; a prisoner of the twenty-first-century entertainment spiral. Even walking along its quiet streets at night, experienced historians find it hard to separate the truth from illusion. Our challenge then is to remember that Tombstone was a real town, not some Hollywood fantasy. It was rough and rowdy with its exploits reported from San Francisco to New York. Yes, the original old mining camp slumbers now but once, very long ago, it was truly magnificent.

© Kevin Mulkins, 2012

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