One of the more well known 'ghost towns' in the Southwest, Tombstone retains a fair amount of its original character and charm despite still being inhabited by some 1,500 people, and having succumbed to the demands of commercialization in the form of gift shops, re-enacted gunfights, cheap souvenirs, and entry fees for some of the buildings. Like so many others in Arizona including nearby Bisbee, the town was founded after discovery of precious metal in the surrounding hills, in this case silver.
The lucky prospector was Ed Schieffelin from Pennsylvania who traveled west in 1877 and found the rich seam of ore that same year, a strike that soon attracted many other miners to the area and led to foundation of the town in 1879. Conditions were harsh, owing to the long hot summers, remote location, lack of rain, and the danger of attack from the native Apache tribes, yet Tombstone soon become the Cochise County seat and the population grew to 10,000 in just 4 years. Ed named the town in ironic response to previous warnings that all he would discover in this far-flung part of Arizona would be his own tombstone.
The place thrived for only around ten years, and a gradual fall in the price of silver followed by flooding of some of the tunnels meant that all excavation stopped early in the 20th century, though unlike most other boom-bust Southwest mining towns, enough of Tombstone's residents remained to ensure its survival. On account of the many well preserved buildings, the town was designated a Natural Historical landmark in 1962, soon after which tourism became the main source of income. Today, the place receives more visitors than any other Arizona ghost town, and has enough to entertain sightseers for half a day or more.
Map of Tombstone
- Bird Cage Theatre
- Courthouse State Historic Park
- O.K. Corral
- Post Office
- Rose Tree Inn
- Visitor Center
Tombstone is still quite a remote community, set in a range of low, desert hills on the east side of the San Pedro River valley, a long way from any large city though it is just 25 miles south of interstate 10, reached by a good, wide road (AZ 80) that starts from Benson. This runs through wooded, agricultural land around the river, and past many quaint country dwellings, then crosses empty desert as the town approaches. Most places in Tombstone have far-reaching views eastwards across the sandy plains towards the Dragoon Mountains, once the last stronghold of Cochise and the Chiricahua Apache Indians. On the far side of the main valley, the parallel Huachuca Mountains have several interesting sites including Coronado National Memorial
Streets in town are arranged in the familiar grid pattern, the central area being 10 by 7 blocks. The most important old buildings are along the main road (Fremont Street)
and the two parallel roads to the south (Allen Street and Toughnut Street). Perhaps the most well known location is the O.K. Corral
on Allen St - now an unremarkable, adobe-fronted courtyard, this staged the famous gunfight on October 26th 1881 where Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp and two other Earp brothers killed three people from the Clanton cattle rustling gang. The shoot-out is subject of re-enactments performed several times a week in season, the main show being 5 pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Other significant fights in Tombstone are marked by posts along the main street, listing who killed who, and the date of the confrontation. The consequences of many of these battles can be seen in the Boothill Graveyard
on the north edge of town, where opuntia cacti, ocotillo bushes and various original headstones are mixed with modern crosses bearing such inscriptions as 'Unknown' or 'Killed by Indians'. Reflecting the commercial needs of the town, entrance is through a gift shop, and piped music accompanies visitors looking at the graves, though at least entrance is free.
Built in 1882, Tombstone's courthouse and jail is preserved as a State Historic Park (entrance $7 per adult in 2020), and contains a comprehensive museum about the town and its mines. Two blocks east stands the Bird Cage Theatre, a small pinkish building that was at various times a saloon, brothel and dance hall. The interior is quite authentic, and houses an interesting museum that can be viewed for a small fee, as is the case for one of several former boarding houses in Tombstone, the Rose Tree Inn on the corner of 4th and Toughnut streets. This also contains the original fixtures & fittings, and has incidental fame as home to the largest rose bush in the world, a tree that covers about 8,600 square feet of the inn and adjacent covered patio.