As a Baby Boomer, I grew up on television westerns: Bonanza, the Lone Ranger, Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, and Maverick. But I lived on the east coast in Virginia. My first opportunity to travel west came in my 30s, so all my expectations came from the TV shows. When I finally visited, the dusty terrain amazed me (it was so dry), and I felt ignorant of the various Native Indian tribes. I saw some people wearing cowboy boots, but nothing like my imagined Wild West.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to make more western trips, and my most recent took me to Tucson, a first for me. I picked up a rental car at the airport and drove a little over an hour to Tombstone, passing rugged landscape and a few tiny towns.
Without a doubt, the historic town feels cheesy and tacky. But that is also part of the fun. Visitors immerse themselves in the Old West and feel like they are walking in a Western movie set.
The History of Tombstone
Tombstone owes its existence to the discovery of silver in 1877 by prospector Ed Schieffelin. Amid Apache territory, Schieffelin’s find sparked a silver rush. He named the town after a warning– the only thing you’ll find out there is your own Tombstone. But, Schieffelin got lucky and discovered a silver mine. He named it Tombstone.
The town adopted the name and rapidly grew with homesteaders, cowboys, speculators, prospectors, lawyers, business people, and gunmen. The population of Tombstone increased to approximately 14,000 by the mid-1880s. Streets lined with numerous saloons, brothels, theaters, gambling houses, and a large Chinese population attracted many. The city also drew notorious figures like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Clanton Gang. The infamous 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral further solidified Tombstone’s place in Western folklore.
What Happened at the O.K. Corral
On the cold afternoon of October 26, 1881, four men in long black coats strode purposefully down dusty Fremont Street. Around the corner, in a narrow vacant lot behind the O.K. Corral, waited six cowboys. Nearly thirty shots were fired at close range in a fateful thirty seconds. The gunbattle between the Earps – led by Marshal Virgil Earp, his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and their friend, Doc Holliday – and the Clanton-McLaury gang left Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers dead, and Virgil, Morgan, and Doc wounded.
Exploring the Old Western Town
I began to explore Tombstone by strolling down the wooden sidewalks of Allen Street, the main street. It’s lined with an abundance of kitschy souvenir shops, some restaurants, saloons, and gimmicky reenactment sites, but many of the original buildings (constructed after the second fire in 1882). The road down the center is covered in dirt to look like the old west. And sometimes, you see a stagecoach drawn by two horses giving tourists a more authentic ride. Reenactors in old-west clothing linger around, hoping you’ll ask about their show.
I bought a ticket for the OK Corral reenactment shootout because they only give so many shows each day (and I’d arrived late afternoon). Before reaching the bleachers, you pass by memorabilia from the era, stables, small museum buildings, and a few photo-op spots. Replicas of the characters in the gunfight stand outside the historic site behind the reconstructed Boarding House and Photo Studio. The show lasts around 30 minutes, although the gunfight is just 30 seconds.
The characters are introduced, and the children in the audience enjoy the ruse of booing for the bad guys and cheering for the good ones. This segment of the show sets up the months of threats, romantic rivalries, robberies, pistol whippings, and arrests before the fateful day. In the 30 seconds of action, nearly 30 shots are fired, and three cowboys are killed. Virgil and Morgan Earp are badly wounded, while Doc Holliday suffers a superficial hip wound. Only Wyatt Earp walked away unscathed.
The actors have given hundreds of these performances, so they have mastered their roles. The performance starts light-hearted, like a theme-park show, until the shootout at the end. This iconic location and show are a must-see when visiting the town.
When leaving the ticketed area, I went into renovated Photo Studio and saw some fascinating old photographs from the town’s earlier days. In Fly’s Boarding House, a mannequin of Big Nose Kate, shall I say a well-known woman in the city, stands at the window where she witnessed the shootout. Kate was an on-and-off girlfriend of Doc Holliday. Somehow I missed going into the Historama next door.
Allen Street Beyond the OK Corral
I continued down Allen Street, passing shops selling cowboy boots, leather goods, western-style clothing, turquoise and silver jewelry, and of course, many gift shops.
I entered the original Bird Cage Theatre to learn about its lively past. A “New York Times” article called the former gambling hall, saloon, and brothel “the roughest, bawdiest, and most wicked night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast. The walls are riddled with over 140 bullet holes, and at least 26 people lost their lives here in gun or knife fights. Today this venue of ill repute holds the distinction of being Tombstone’s most haunted building.”
In December 1881, the Bird Cage Theatre opened its doors — and stayed open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The opera house and saloon were home to some of the most expensive prostitutes and high-stakes gamblers in the region; it was where the luckiest miners went to squander their newfound riches. Downstairs housed the private poker room where the minimum buy-in was $1,000. Although the players changed, the game ran continuously for eight years, five months, and three days. When the silver mines closed, the theatre was also closed in 1892.”
I also stopped by Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, where servers wore outfits that reminded me of Gunsmoke’s Miss Kitty. I sat down at the bar for a drink and then decided, no, I had to drive back to Tucson. I additionally popped my head into Doc Holiday’s Saloon, too, and found it looked the same.
Thinking I’d investigate more accurate records, I walked over to the Tombstone Courthouse State Historical Park for exhibits on the town’s history. It was already closed for the day.
So, I got back in my car and drove a short distance to Boothill Graveyard. The cemetery, established in 1878, served as the primary burial ground for the early residents of Tombstone. The graveyard gained its moniker due to the number of individuals hastily buried with their boots still on.
You enter after you pay a small admission fee and receive a descriptive list of the 250 graves. The guide proves helpful as it lists the names by row number. This graveyard is no green lawn cemetery; it rests on rough, rocky ground. Many grave toppers are rustic wooden crosses and weathered tombstones, some marked only by “Unknown,” evoking a sense of mystery and loss.
One grave I enjoyed was that of Lester Moore, a Wells Fargo station agent known for a humorous epitaph that reads, “Here lies Lester Moore, four slugs from a .44, no Les, no more.” This epitaph, while not historically accurate, adds a touch of fun.
You will only need up to 30 minutes to complete a cemetery tour.
Tourism versus Authenticity
I left to drive back to Tucson, thinking about my time there. While Tombstone embraces Wild West legends and historical intrigue, plus offers an immersive experience, it’s also over-commercialized. But what tourist attraction isn’t these days?
I’d visit again for fun and to stand where some historical events took place and learn more about them. Tombstone is not a movie set but the remains of a real town with many period buildings. Today over 1,600 residents call Tombstone home.
Tombstone activities include numerous annual events celebrating the town’s heritage, such as the Helldorado Days and Wyatt Earp Days. The reenactments and live entertainment offer a glimpse into the past and help keep the Wild West’s stories alive.
For those who want more serious historical information, check out the lesser-known attractions like the Tombstone Epitaph Museum or take a guided historical tour. I did not have time for these, but I am sorry I missed them. I also missed the nearby ghost town of Bisbee, known for its artsy vibe and mining history.Ultimately, the perception of Tombstone depends on individual expectations and interests. Whether you view it as an immersive historical experience or a commercialized Western attraction, exploring Tombstone provides an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between tourism, authenticity, and the enduring allure of the Wild West