Tombstone, Arizona, was a simple silver-mining town among many in the 1880s. It looms large because of legendary lawmen the Earp brothers and their hard-drinking, hard-gambling buddy Doc Holiday. The men and the town went down in history because of a 30-second shootout portrayed in movies as the Gunfight at the OK Corral. (FYI – The fight actually took place further down the road, not at the OK Corral.)
The story goes like this …. In 1881 Virgil Earp was marshal of the town and had recently deputized his brothers Morgan and Wyatt. At that time lawmen were the only folks authorized to carry weapons in town. Rumor had it that alleged cattlerustlers, the Clanton and McLaury brothers, were armed and looking for a fight, particularly with the Earps.
The two groups confronted each other in the main street. About 30 shots were fired in 30 seconds.. During the exchange the McLaury brothers — Tom and Frank — and Billy Clanton died.
Remembering the film and my crush on Doc Holiday/Val Kilmer, I jumped at the chance to visit the real town during a recent trip to Tucson. Tombstone is 70 miles southeast of Arizona’s second-largest city and an enjoyable motorcycle ride through the desert sunshine. At 4,500 feet elevation, it’s a little cooler there than the city where the elevation is 2,300 feet.
Visiting Tombstone is better if you’ve watched/rewatched movies about it and/or done a little studying before the visit. Then you’ll have context for the two blocks of dirt streets lined with wood-plank sidewalks and reproduction/original buildings.
During the 1880s silver rush, the city was home to more than 13,000 people. Today, the population is about 10 percent of that number. Many of them staff the historic district.
Keep in mind, this isn’t an attraction. This is a real town with working business district including restaurants, shops and museums. The two blocks of history are all themed, of course, and some are original architecture. They sell cowboys boots, hats and western wear as well as turquoise and silver jewelry. Ice cream and fudge shops are available post dining.
The town is enhanced by actors inside and outside of the businesses. For example, four men in long coats and cowboy hats stand at the end of dusty Allen Street posing as the Earps and Holiday. Visitors are invited to join them for personal photos.
Horses clip-clop through the street pulling a replica stagecoach. Visitors are again welcome to join the driver for an authentic experience.
We lunched at Big Nose Kate’s, named after a real person and set in the lobby of the former Grand Hotel. Much of the interior and half of the bar have been adapted from the original. The waitresses dress up in brightly colored bustiers, skirts and fishnet stockings to recall the fashion of the time. A hostess there invited us to dress up in period clothing – no cost, except tips – for picture taking.
Big Nose Kate – historic proprietor of the hotel/brothel — was a real person, Mary Katherine Horony. She worked as a prostitute at the brothel and was Doc Holliday’s companion and wife.
If you haven’t dug into history before arriving, never fear, the museums will bring you up to speed. Two of the most interesting are
The Bird Cage Theatre … one of the town’s original buildings. The allegedly haunted theater, saloon and gambling hall is filled with artifacts and, some say, ghosts of cowboys and prostitutes. Fourteen box seats gave patrons privacy while viewing various presentations.
OK Corral museum… the restored complex shares information about daily life. A tour includes a reenactment of the famous gun fight named for the place.
Depending on the depth of interest and visiting time, a number of other small museums are open for small fees.