Tombstone got its start when Ed Schieffelin set out to prospect the desolate hills east of the San Pedro River in 1877. Friends, worried about his safety, tried to talk him out of it. Army Scout Al Sieber supposedly told him point-blank that the “only rock you’ll find out there will be your own tombstone.”
But Schieffelin had the last laugh, naming the town that sprang up around his fabulous silver strike “Tombstone.” The boom was on. The siren song of easy money attracted the usual assortment of boomtown businesses—saloons, gambling halls and houses of prostitution.
Before long, Tombstone’s population soared to around 8,000 people or so. (Some historians think that if you count all the camps in the area, the population may have been twice that.) When the mines flooded in the 1880s, though, the town went bust, just like a thousand boomtowns before it. But the “town too tough to die” held on, reinventing itself as an exemplar of the wild, wild West.
Today, the echoes from the shoot-out behind the O.K. Corral still reverberate through Tombstone, which draws tourists and Old West aficionados from around the globe. It’s no wonder—with every step down Tombstone’s dusty streets, you feel as if you’re walking back through time.
Although the O.K. Corral gets the lion’s share of attention, there were plenty of other gunfights in Tombstone.
At Doc Holliday’s Gunfight Palace, you can see for yourself how Buckskin Frank Leslie killed Billy Claiborne (who’d run away just before the lead started flying at the O.K. Corral), witness the way Luke Short shot Charlie Storms and learn why in the world E.L. Bradshaw gunned down his friend Tom Waters over a fancy shirt.
“We pride ourselves on being totally historical,” says Palace owner and re-enactor Doc Najarian. “We try to give a little history lesson on how these fights got started, the background on the people involved and what happened afterwards.”
Like other folks in Tombstone, the gunfighters at the Palace are happy to help Old West aficionados dig deeper into Tombstone’s storied past.
For one thing, Najarian says, since many visitors never stray off Allen Street, you can find things most tourists never see simply by exploring other parts of town.
His favorites include Schieffelin Hall, one of Tombstone’s first two-story buildings, the Wyatt Earp House and the Western Heritage Museum.
He also highly recommends the Good Enough Mine Tour, an underground trip to learn how miners worked and see an actual vein of silver, the metal that built Tombstone.
There’s a long list of things to see in Tombstone, but these three shouldn’t be missed:
Gunfight Behind the O.K. Corral:
Every day at two p.m., re-enactors describe what led to the original shoot-out between the Earp and the Clanton factions on October 26, 1881, then let ’er rip with booms and blasts and bona fide dialogue. Other times of the day, the life-sized animatronics, that stand where the fight started, talk about the battle.
Bird Cage Theatre:
This dusty, musty, bullet-riddled building on Allen Street is a history buff’s delight.
The original box seats still hang along either side of the main theatre. Sporting ladies and their customers could take in the shows from these “cribs, d” or draw the curtains and enjoy some private entertainment.
Don’t miss the back room where Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Diamond Jim Brady and others sometimes sat in on what has been touted as the longest-running poker game in history, which ran 24 hours a day for eight years, five months and three days.
Although the markers have been repainted many times over the years, the epitaphs remain the same. Some are quirky: “Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a 44. No Les, no more.” Some are infamous: “Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, Murdered on the streets of Tombstone, 1881.”
But most markers are simple, somber reminders of just how short and brutal life in a boomtown could be.
There are plenty of other attractions in and around town:
Get an overview of the town and its history with a guided tour. You’ll find several fine options—Tombstone Trolley Tours, Old Tombstone Tours (your choice of stagecoach or covered wagon) and, for the more macabre-minded, the Ghost and Murder Tour.
Then mosey on over to the 1882 Tombstone Courthouse and check out a tax license for operating a brothel, read an invitation to a hanging and ponder the (replica) gallows in the courtyard.
The Tombstone Epitaph Museum holds printing presses, type cases and many other artifacts used over the history of the longest continuously published newspaper in Arizona. The Epitaph, founded in 1880, still prints a monthly national edition.
You don’t have to be a gardener to admire the largest rose tree in the world at the Rose Tree Museum. The Lady Banks Rose, transplanted here in Tombstone in 1886, now covers about 9,000 square feet. The town will celebrate its 130th blooming during the Rose Tree Festival on April 11-13.
See for yourself some of the clothing worn by the well-dressed men and women of the era at Andrea’s Museum of Victorian Fashion.
Finally, take a moment to visit the Ed Schieffelin Monument a couple miles northwest of town. Standing by his grave marker, you can’t help but wonder what the old prospector would think of his town now.
We think he’d be right pleased.