Billed as “The Town Too Tough to Die,” Tombstone, Arizona, is a National Historic Landmark and arguably the most famous Old West town in the country. My wife, Gayle, and I, can remember when “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” was a popular weekly television series, and Western movies were commonplace. It may not be the case anymore, but in those days, anyone with access to a television knew about Wyatt and Virgil Earp, Doc Holliday and the Clanton Brothers. Our exposure to those times made us curious about Tombstone, and so we went to see the place for ourselves.
When you go to Tombstone, plan to arrive early. Depending on the time of year and day of week, parking can be hard to find within easy walking distance of the tourist attractions. However, you don’t necessarily have to walk everywhere to see what’s in town. You can ride in a stagecoach or trolley, and get a narrated tour.
A good place to start is the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park, which opens at 9 a.m. Extensive exhibits on the history of Tombstone are housed in a two-story, 12,000-square-foot structure built in 1882. Besides courtrooms, the Tombstone Courthouse once contained the Cochise County jail and the offices of the sheriff, recorder, treasurer and board of supervisors. Visitors can learn all about the early miners, cattlemen, pioneers, gunslingers and outlaws who came to this silver mining boomtown. We even saw things like a tax license for operating a brothel, and an invitation to a hanging. There is a replica of the gallows in the courtyard, where seven men were hanged.
Built on Silver
What some refer to as the “West’s wildest mining town” began its rich history with the discovery of vast silver deposits in 1877. By 1881, the population had reached 10,000. Shortly after that, water began to flood the mines. Eventually the mines flooded to the point where they could not be worked anymore. By 1886, the heyday was over, but not before $37 million worth of silver had been extracted.
Many of the buildings in Tombstone date from the late 1870s and early 1880s. They are filled with well-preserved artifacts from that period (and several are museums in their own right). It is easy to imagine stepping back in time, when Tombstone was the fastest growing city between St. Louis and San Francisco. Silver brought people to what was then Apache land and paid for much of what you see today. But it is the millions of tourists over the years since then who have kept this historical landmark looking like it did back then, with visits to places like the O.K. Corral, Bird Cage Theater, Crystal Palace Saloon, Big Nose Kate’s Saloon and the Tombstone Epitaph.
The O.K. Corral is on Allen Street, next to Tombstone’s Historama. The Historama offers a 25-minute multimedia presentation on the history of Tombstone, narrated by Vincent Price. It covers all the history from the time of Geronimo, the Apache Indian chief, to the present. Next door at the O.K. Corral, you can check out Doc Holliday’s room, and see other exhibits. At two each afternoon, there is a reenactment of the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
If you miss the O.K. Corral gunfight, there are other versions, at different times and places in town. Naturally none of them are free. And they are in competition with one another. You will encounter characters on the streets dressed in period costumes, and some of them are gunfight actors. According to each and every one of them that we came in contact with, their gunfight show is the best.
On May 1, 1880, John Clum founded the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper, remarking, “No tombstone is complete without its epitaph.” The newspaper is still published and its original building is now a museum—one of the few experiences in town that is free. You’ll be amazed at the printing presses and other equipment they used back then. Of course there are original articles about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, about Virgil Earp being shot, and even about Geronimo surrendering.
At some point most everyone will get hungry and thirsty, and there are many options to fill that need. Two in particular drew our interest, and both are on E. Allen Street. The Crystal Palace Saloon, established in 1879, was awarded the “Best Historically Accurate Saloon” by True West Magazine. The other, and our favorite, was Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, where we found good entertainment, décor, food, and people-watching opportunities.
A trip to Tombstone wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Boothill. Created in 1878, it was originally named the Tombstone Cemetery, but the burial of many victims of violence in those early days led people to call it the Boothill Graveyard. More than 250 gravesites have been carefully documented. In addition to the deceased person’s name, headstones provide information about the cause of death.
Wells Fargo RV Park is within easy walking distance of the tourist attractions, and you can find other RV parks nearby in Benson, Bisbee and Fort Huachuca City. My retired military status afforded us an additional option: Apache Flats RV Park on the military base at Fort Huachuca. It is a wonderful place! Anyone who is entitled to stay there should make it a point to do so—whether or not Tombstone is on the itinerary. The base has two outstanding museums, which are open to the public with government-issued photo ID. It is also near Kartchner Caverns State Park and other attractions, and not far from the Mexican border.
There are plenty of fun things to do in Tombstone. No one should be bored. We had a blast, and learned a great deal in the process.
Ken Reid, an RVer for more than 40 years, lives in Modesto, California.
IF YOU GO:
Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park: This museum is open daily, except Christmas, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (azstateparks.com/Parks/TOCO/index.html)
Tombstone Epitaph: The free museum in this historic newspaper building is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. (tombstoneepitaph.com)
Crystal Palace Saloon: It opened as the Golden Eagle Brewery in 1879 and reopened as the Crystal Palace after fire destroyed the original building in 1882. (crystalpalacesaloon.com)
Wells Fargo RV Park: This park is in downtown Tombstone, a half-block from the O.K. Corral. (wellsfargorv.com)
Apache Flats RV Park: Active duty, reserve and retired members of the military are eligible to stay at this park on the military base at Fort Huachuca. It has 56 pull-through sites with full hookups. (mwrhuachuca.com/apache_flats.html)