There are certain historic names and locations and events that seem to come to mind whenever thinking about the western U.S. The California Gold Rush, George Armstrong Custer, The Indian Wars, Route 66, The Oregon Trail just to name a few. In addition to this list the town of Tombstone Arizona (pictured below in 1891) almost always comes up. Tombstone was representative of what the old west was about.
If you've taken an Arizona vacation you may have visited the historic town of Tombstone. If you haven't had that opportunity I would highly recommend it. The town remains quite a big tourist draw, especially in the off winter months when the southern Arizona temperatures become a bit more friendly.
There are many things to see there including of course the storied OK Corral and Big Nose Kate's Saloon. In fact, there are terrific true stories connected with most of the buildings you will see there.Tombstone has been the setting for several motion pictures, some of which were more accurate than others. The town certainly has a place in western American lore. Located in southeastern Arizona, Tombstone was a mining town which had both a very unique beginning as well as a unique existence.
The name Wyatt Earp and his brothers Morgan and Virgil might be the names that come to your mind first regarding Tombstone but there are several others. Doc Holliday pictured to the right would surely be another one. Many of these names were also associated with the cattle town of Dodge City Kansas.
Ed Schieffelin and Tombstone
The west is dotted with old mining towns just about everywhere however Tombstone stands out for several reasons. One reason involves how the town got it's name. Like many men in the late 1800's Ed Schieffelin was first a frontier scout and then decided to explored the west looking for his bonanza. As a prospector, Ed traveled back and forth through southern Arizona looking for high grade ore. Mining was a gamble by any stretch of the imagination but there were many that took that gamble. Some became rich and others lost everything.
Schieffelin's area of exploration was one of the more hostile ones. The Apache Indians roamed the hills of southern Arizona and burned more than one ranch and killed more than one rancher or prospector. The picture below right is of Geronimo in 1887, one of the most feared Apache warrior. The region was dangerous enough where Ed chose to stay near U.S. Army soldiers who scouted and patrolled the area and resided in nearby Fort Huachuca. Southern Arizona had been the region in the grips of a twenty-five year Apache War. As the soldiers moved back and forth in southern Arizona so did Ed. Sometime Schieffelin would get brave and strike out totally on his own. The soldiers joked with Ed about this and told him if he wasn't careful he'd "find his own tombstone".
As a result of this, "Tombstone" was the name of Ed Schieffelin's very first mine. Ed was lucky. He found silver within the Apache-filled hills. It wasn't easy. At one time Ed quit prospecting and joined his brother who was working in other people's mines. The prospecting bug however hit Ed again and he went out and gave it another try. This time things worked out and Ed Schieffelin eventually became a very rich man.
The settlement that sprang up next to Ed's mine in 1879 was appropriately named "Tombstone". Today, Tombstone is in Cochise County Arizona. At the time of it's founding it was in Pima county. Tombstone changed from a mining camp with a few tents to a real community in 1880. Word traveled fast as it always does with new mine fines and it didn't take long for throngs of people to descend on the area. By the end of 1879 the town elected it's first mayor. Things were moving fast. Two companies were running stage coaches daily between Tucson and Tombstone.
An interesting note is that even though silver mining was starting peak production in 1880, both Ed (pictured right) and his brother Al decided to sell their stakes and move on. It seems that Ed had no taste for city life and after prospectors flooded the town looking for their fortunes. It seemed that everyone wanted to mine silver. Ed decided the crowd was no place for him. The brothers stake was reportedly sold for $600,000 to be paid in installments. Their holdings were later declared to be worth about $2,000,000. Regardless, Ed and his brother were happy to cash out. Ed still bitten the mining bug left Tombstone and headed to Nevada to be a simple prospector once again. This could have marked the first time in history where a towns founder moved away after a short one year residency. The Ed Schieffelin Monument is pictured far below right on this post.
The Tombstone Epitaph
The ore production and silver prices were both going strong and one chronicle of it was the town newspaper, the Tombstone Epitaph. Founded on May 1, 1880, the paper is the oldest continually published newspaper in the United States. It's founder, John Clum, had been an Indian agent in Arizona prior to being the publisher of a Tucson newspaper. When that paper ceased to published he moved to bustling Tombstone and started the Epitaph.
The Tombstone Epitaph is probably the most recognized publication for a peek into the life of a booming mining town. It's reporting of the colorful and often lawless characters of old Tombstone is still cited today. The Epitaph was the paper with eyewitness accounts of the OK Corral ( partial Epitaph article at left) gunfight between the Earp's and Clanton's. One version in wide circulation today is that the gunfight at the OK Corral actually took place adjacent to the corral. When you visit Tombstone and observe the scene you can be the judge.
Archived articles also offers glimpses into the shaping of the burgeoning town.
One story reported how a barrel of alcohol was set afire in a saloon by a bartender's lit cigar. The result was an explosion which ended up spreading and burning down a significant portion of the business district. Another situation that was prevalent in growing mining towns was the red light district.
In the case of Tombstone is was growing and growing everywhere, not just in the "Red Light District". A woman wrote a letter to the Epitaph editor which pretty well describes the views of many. She wrote in part..."It seems from your issue of the 9th that the city fathers have extended the demi monde the liberties of the city. Allen Street was virtually their, to such an extent that a respectable woman would hesitate to even cross it. But this was not enough. Hitherto, although it has been impossible to pass along the streets provided with sidewalks without our ears being stunned with a multitude of oaths at every turn we have at least been allowed certain limits for a retired house, where little children could run and play without danger of such contamination".
All mining camps attracted a host of colorful characters. Honest and dishonest prospectors, gamblers, outlaws and horse and mule thieves. To be sure there were also the hardworking merchants and miners. Whenever you have this type of mixture with law enforcement being off and on, trouble can break out in a minute. Grudges, quarrels and gambling disputes could turn into gun play without much provocation. There was a time when Wyatt Earp served as Deputy U.S. Marshal and his brother Virgil as Tombstone police chief. This was after the Earp brothers came to the area originally to attempt mining. The Wyatt Earp saga in Tombstone and the OK Corral gunfight is a story unto itself and we'll cover that in detail in an upcoming post of it's own. Pictured below left is what was left of the OK Corral after an 1882 fire.
The Newspaper Chronicles the History of Tombstone
The Tombstone Epitaph offers us more insight to the town with it's December 29, 1881 article on the shooting of Virgil Earp. The article in part reports...
" At about 11:30 o'clock last night, U.S. Deputy Marshal Virgil Earp was proceeding from the Oriental Saloon, on the northwest corner of Allen and Fifth streets, to his room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, and when he was about the middle of the crossing of Fifth Street, five shots were fired in rapid succession by unknown men, who were standing in the old Palace Saloon that is being rebuilt next door above Tasker and Pridham's store, on the southwest corner of the same street".
The Epitaph later reported that with most of the damage being to his left arm Virgil survived this assassination attempt. The paper did note however that Tombstone now had assassins among their midst. I think that the closest comparison to Tombstone at about the same time during the 1800's was Deadwood in the Black Hills area of South Dakota. Both were bustling mining towns with the same cast of characters and basically the same amount of violence.
Here's another Tombstone Epitaph article regarding JUDGE GEORGE WASHINGTON SWAIN published in 1883.
Mrs. Martha Swain Recalls Arrival in Tombstone...
"Shortly after arriving in Tombstone the Swains moved into a house located adjacent to the courthouse which was completed in 1882. Some of the chairs used to seat spectators at the courthouse dedication came from the Swain home as well as from those of other residents nearby.
Mrs. Swain liked to recall the days of bustling Tombstone and its fascination as well as its hardships. The camp was really booming. When she arrived there the Bird Cage theater was just finished. There was no water supply other than that packed into the town on the backs of burros from Sycamore Springs.
The precious fluid sold at the rate of two buckets for 25 cents and was used sparingly. The price of foodstuffs was sky high. Eggs sold for as much as 25 cents apiece.
Tombstone made up in action what it lacked in polish. The town never slept. Throngs jammed the gambling halls and saloons 24 hours a day. Freighters with great cargoes of merchandise filed in and out of the camp in a steady stream. The carpenter’s saw and hammer were continually busy erecting a new frontier community. George went to work in the mines to support his family, his first experience underground. But it wasn’t long before he was elected justice of the peace, in 1883". The Epitaphs reporting offers many interesting takes on life in old Tombstone.
Mines and Tombstone's Wealth
Some good news came from the mines regarding water. One of Tombstone's biggest concerns since it's inception was how to get water. Obviously there wasn't a natural river supply nearby but water was found in the mines below the 600 foot level. Pumps were brought in from San Francisco to get the water to the town. Southeastern Arizona was a fairly remote area however the hills offered excellent mining. Just down the trail from Tombstone is Bisbee Arizona which assumed the name "Queen of the Copper Towns". Bisbee also grew rapidly and at one time had an opera house, street cars, a baseball team, stock exchanges and just about anything you'd expect to find in a fair sized city. Pictured below left is the Cochise County Courthouse.
Visit Historic Tombstone Arizona
Tombstone is an excellent addition to any vacation planner. The many attractions there offer one of the best glimpses into old west history. The mixture of silver mining and the growth of a community in a remote section of the country is a one of a kind experience.
There were many things that made up an old west town and Tombstone seems to embody just about every one of them. Tombstone is located in Cochise county about 68 miles southeast of Tucson. Take state road AZ-80 south from Interstate-10. AZ-80 is about 38 miles east of Tucson.
(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images in the public domain)
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