If you’re stopping by Cowboy Kisses, most likely it’s because you’re interested in the historic west. And if you’re interested in the historic west, most likely you know a reasonable amount about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Doc Holliday, and Tombstone, Arizona. Tombstone, of course, was made famous by that gunfight; had it not been for the O.K. Corral and Wyatt Earp, most likely Tombstone would have gone the way of many old mining towns and become a true ghost town, or possibly it would be some artists’ enclave like nearby Bisbee. But the gunfight did take place, and it took place at a time when Tombstone was a thriving metropolis, as difficult as that is to envisage now.
If you need a quick refresher course on the gunfight behind the O.K. Corral and are reluctant to head to Wiki or grab a relevant issue of ‘True West’ magazine, let me briefly recount what happened. At approximately 3 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, town Marshal Virgil Earp along with brothers Wyatt (a former Kansas lawman from Dodge City) and Morgan, as well as pal Doc Holliday, faced down the brothers Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy Claiborne, and had a shoot-out in the most historic 30 seconds of the Old West. And why did this occur? In 1881, tensions from the War Between the States hung on. In Tombstone, antagonism between the lawmen—representing the Republican north, capitalists and upright townspeople—and the Cowboys (giving them a bad name much to my personal consternation!), who were mostly former Confederates and Democrats, not to mention cattle rustlers, all boiled over, along with personal animosities. Thirty bullets later, Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers lay dead, three of the lawmen—not Wyatt—were wounded, and Ike Clanton the coward and Billy Claiborne had taken off.But whoever was there, those 30 seconds tossed Tombstone into eternal recognition.
So, what was Tombstone like at that time? Was it worth the attention the gunfight seems to have merited? Tombstone was then the county seat of Cochise County, created in February of that year out of part of Pima County, Territory of Arizona. Settled in 1877, by 1879 it was prospering and well on its way to producing the forty plus million dollars worth of silver bullion it would present. From a population of around one hundred, it soared to over fourteen thousand, and with that populace came the amenities to entertain, feed, and service the people. Night spots such as The Bird Cage vied with an opera house for the upper crust. Dance halls and gambling joints, brothels, soiled doves’ cribs, and one hundred ten saloons sat alongside a bowling alley, an ice cream parlor, a school, two banks and four churches. Society was fluid: a miner one day might be a millionaire the next. And there were three newspapers.
If you read the copy of The Tombstone Epitaph from the day after the shoot-out, the most interesting items are not necessarily the statements from so-called witnesses, but the advertisements in the margins that indicate the kind of town Tombstone was. Yes, there are things that we'd expect: Tuttle’s Tombstone Corral with accommodation for 100 horses; Spagenberg’s Gunsmith and Locksmith; Risdon Iron and Locomotive Works for Engines and Boilers; the Tombstone Carriage Shop; Hibbard, Spencer & Bartlett Hardware; and Fish Bros. Wagon Company, along with the Arizona Mail and Stage Line; Watt & Tarbell Undertakers; and Mme. LeDeau’s, which asks you to “ask any man.” But there is also Pioneer Baking Powder, Mooney’s Fashion Saloon, 4-Paws Monster Railroad Circus, a Tonsorial Palace, and Estey’s Pianos.
Of course, as the silver ran out, so did the population. In 1929, the County Seat of Cochise moved to Bisbee where it is today, and Tombstone would have become one more true ghost town near the Mexican border—except for one thing, and we know what that was. As I drove down from the ever-growing Tucson, through windswept open spaces punctuated by towns not much more than trailer settlements, the feeling that civilization was being left behind was intense. Now that the main thoroughfare of Tombstone is pedestrianized, it more resembles what it once was, except for the different uses of the buildings. The saloons are now family eateries with live music—and the one we attended, the Crystal Palace, had the worst live entertainment I’ve encountered anywhere, anytime. The usual southwestern shops are there: native American jewelry mixed with western souvenirs. And the fact that there is a six dollar charge to stand on the hallowed ground of the O.K. Corral, see their museum, and pick up a copy of the Tombstone Epitaph from the day after the shoot-out, rather detracts from the whole experience.
But as the wind howled and moaned, banging saloon doors and sending signs clattering with ghostly whines, tumbleweed rolling down the dirt streets, and a stagecoach lurching through town, Tombstone stepped away from its Disney-like existence, and for one brief moment the desertion and silence of the residents' prior to the gunfight became real. Maybe it is a ghost of itself, but Tombstone, for now, isn’t dead nor dying.