If ever the name of a place could conjure up specific imagery, Tombstone, Arizona is such a place. The town, a silver boomtown in the late nineteenth century, has been sensationalized in books, songs, and films as a rough and tumble western outpost, with its entire history summed up by a singular event: the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. But what is this place really? The answer might surprise you.

In 1878, prospector Ed Schieffelin staked a claim for a silver mine in the area of what is now Tombstone. He took a sample and sent it to be examined, and called the quality of the silver “good enough.” As operations started in the Good Enough Mine, the silver was found to be among the purest and best quality ever mined in the United States.

(The Good Enough Mine can still be visited today, and is a great tour for anyone interested in mining, history, Tombstone, or a place to get out of the heat.)

Inside the Good Enough Mine

By the following year, more than 25 mines were operating in the Tombstone area, and over the next decade, the town grew to a population about about 14,000, making it among the largest cities between San Francisco and St. Louis. The town contained a bowing alley, school, two banks, four churches, fourteen gambling halls, and 110 saloons, in addition to numerous dance halls and brothels. (No, those are not typos.)

Perhaps the most famous building is, coincidentally, the only one that is original along the main drag in town: the Bird Cage Theatre. Built of brick rather than wood, it alone survived massive fires in 1881 and 1882 that wiped out most of the rest of town, and artifacts were even brought here for safekeeping as subsequent fires broke out. As a result, the collection here is huge, varied, and the best way to get a feel for the storied history of Tombstone beyond the Hollywood fiction.

A self-guided tour of the theatre costs $14, which may seem a bit steep. However, the artifacts, “bird cages” where prostitutes would attract customers, and site of the infamous Tombstone poker game (Doc Holliday was one of the regulars) makes this, in my opinion, a must-see for authentic history lovers. Don’t miss the original hearse, decorated in gold leaf.

Don’t miss the Bird Cage Theatre. Each of these “suites” once held a dancing girl looking for customers.

On the other end of the spectrum, and the other end of the main part of town, is the O.K. Corral. This is why Tombstone still exists as a tourist destination, and why its motto of “the town too tough to die” stands as truth. You may have seen the movie Tombstone, or Wyatt Earp, and remember this as the site of the famed gunfight with the Cowboys, the climax of Hollywood’s portrayal of the town and its tale. The story basically goes like this: the bad Cowboys gang constantly harassed and threatened the Earp family (law enforcement, as Virgil Earp was the Marshal), leading to a gunfight in which three Cowboys were killed, and two Earps wounded. (Doc Holliday was also on the side of the Earps.) Re-enactments of the event at the Corral tell that story as well, with the audience booing the Cowboys and cheering Holliday and the Earps.

While a bit cheesy, the re-enactment show is a ton of fun!

However, this seemingly simple tale of good versus evil is not quite so clear-cut. Staff member Burt walks me through the site, and tells me the story. He says that in the opinion of many back in the day, the Earps were the instigators of the fight. After all, the shots fired by them were significantly more accurate, leading to the belief that they fired first. Remember, three Cowboys were killed in the several seconds of actual fighting, and none on the Earp/Holliday side. Following the event, Wyatt Earp (the “hero” of the story) was not charged, leading to some outrage – the Earps were fairly well connected to the local judges.

Historical inaccuracies abound as the story was taken over by Hollywood. First off, the fight wasn’t actually at the O.K. Corral. It was in a lot adjacent, but I guess gunfight adjacent to the O.K. Corral doesn’t sound as good. Secondly, while it was not the only fatal gunfight in the history of Tombstone, it was one of the most bloody, and the town was – justifiably – very upset. This was not an event that was celebrated. In fact, in 1929 when the first re-enactment was held at the original Helldorado event to try to gain traction as a tourist destination, those who had been there for the original event on October 26, 1881 were horrified that it was being romanticized.

The actual O.K. Corral

All that said, the show was cute, the acting fun, and the audience included in some innovative ways. Whatever the truth of the events, visiting Tombstone and not seeing the O.K. Corral (there are other well-done exhibits here as well) and the show would be a travesty.

By the end of the nineteenth century, silver mining had basically stopped in Tombstone. The process of extracting and refining the silver had become more expensive than buying it abroad, and it was no longer profitable to run the mines. (However, Tombstone mines did produce a majority of American manganese during World War One.) The town, however, didn’t die out completely as so many other boomtowns of the era did. Perhaps it actually was too tough to die. Or perhaps it was innovative publicity campaigns, and some timely intervention by Hollywood.

Today, this town of about 1400 residents welcomes more than 100,000 tourists per year (down from its peak of 500,000 after the release of the movie Tombstone, although there are still posters for the film everywhere). Gunfight shows are on each block, Cowboys roam the streets, and saloons offer visitors the chance to pretend to be Wyatt Earp himself. It’s a bit hokey, but all in fun, especially for families.

Tombstone, Arizona. The town too tough to die. While its history is a bit more colored than Hollywood would have you believe, it is still a wonderful day trip for those who want a boomtown experience!

Note: thank you to both the O.K. Corral and Bird Cage Theatre for allowing me entry gratis. However, as always, my opinions of these places are the same whether I pay or not.

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