Tombstone, Arizona – The Town Too Tough To Die

By 1881 there were some 8,000 people in the town which boasted more gambling houses, saloons, and the largest “red light” district in the Southwest. The town also supported four churches, a school, two banks and an opera house.

In February, 1881, former Dodge City, Kansas lawmen Bat Masterson and Luke Short joined Wyatt Earp in Tombstone. Both worked with Wyatt at the gaming tables at the Oriental Saloon. On February 25, 1881, Short got into a dispute with a man named Charlie Storms which resulted in a gunfight in the street. Charlie Storms soon lay dead in the dust from Short’s quick drawn six-gun. Masterson stayed in Tombstone just a few short months before he was urgently summoned back to Dodge City to help his brother Jim.

Meanwhile, the Cowboy faction continued to rustle cattle in the area; however, Deputy Marshal Virgil Earp could do nothing about it, as stealing cattle was a county offence for which the town of Tombstone had no jurisdiction. The Earp brothers, as well as Doc Holliday constantly found themselves at odds with the Cowboy faction, with multiple disputes between the “law” and the “lawless.”

On June 22, 1881, a fire destroyed most of the eastern half of Tombstone’s business district. Having no water to put out the fire, buildings in the path of the fire were dynamited to slow the engulfing flames. The citizens of Tombstone blamed Marshall Ben Sippy for not controlling the looting that followed the fire and Virgil Earp, the senior deputy, was soon appointed marshal, a move that antagonized the already hostile Clantons.

The McLaurys and Clanton Dead

The McLaurys and Clanton Dead

On October 26, 1881, the tension between the two factions finally culminated in the gunfight at the OK Corral, thirty seconds which would long be remembered in history.

The gunfight between Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp, along with Doc Holliday, against five members of the Clanton Gang, would leave Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury dead. Virgil Earp took a shot to the leg and Morgan suffered a shoulder wound. As Wyatt stood, still stunned, Sheriff Johnny Behan appeared advising him he was under arrest.

The Earps and Doc Holliday were tried for murder but it was determined that the Earps acted within the law. Virgil was later terminated as marshal for his role in the homicides.

On March 18, 1882, the cowboy gang killed Morgan Earp in retaliation for the OK Corral gunfight. The entire Earp party would leave with Morgan’s body headed to California. However, Wyatt and Warren Earp, along with Doc Holliday would jump off the train in Tucson and spend the next year chasing down the members of the Clanton Gang and killing them one by one. However, neither the Earps nor Holliday would ever return to Tombstone.

The O.K. Corral burns Down

The O.K. Corral burns Down

On May 25, 1882 another fire devastated Tombstone, destroying most of the western half of Tombstone’s business district, including the O.K. Corral. But the resilient citizens of the town would once again rebuild.

The Cochise County Courthouse was built in 1882. About the same time, the Bird Cage Theatre brought “culture” to the community, though it also served as a saloon, gambling hall and brothel. The New York Times called it, “the wildest, roughest, wickedest honky tonk between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast.” That statement was well deserved, since the Bird Cage was the scene for twenty-six deaths during its eight years of business.

In 1886, a well was drilled striking water and the citizens were thrilled. However, what they didn’t realize was that this new found water would end the mining boom and almost end the town. Immediately, water began to seep into the many mines of the area. Though giant pumps were installed, the seepage could not be stopped. When a fire burned the pumps of the Grand Central Mine in 1886, the water claimed the mine for good. The disgruntled miners soon found new employment in the copper mines of Bisbee and other new mining towns. The nearby towns of Charleston and Millville completely died and Tombstone lost its boom-town status and began to fade.

In 1890, more sophisticated pumps were brought into the mines and they began to open increasing Tombstone’s population once again. However, by the turn of the century new flooding would begin that would entirely stop the mining for good.

In 1929 a vote moved the county seat to Bisbee, some 25 miles away and Tombstone was truly destined to become a ghost town. However, the resilient citizens banded together to save the town. Leaning on its rich history they began to focus on Tombstone’s opportunity for tourism. Historic buildings were repaired and restored. Boot Hill became a top attraction and the famed shootout was re-enacted to thrill visitors. Movies and books began to be written about Tombstone which further gave life to the dying town.

The infamous Allen Street, once full of bars, casinos and bordellos has been restored to attract visitors. The original 1882 Cochise County Courthouse and gallows are now a State Historic Park.

This old town, full of life and history, survives the test of time and is well worth the visit. Tombstone, Arizona is conveniently located just 70 miles southeast of Tucson and very close by Benson, Arizona. Hotels and dining are abundant in the area including in Tombstone.


© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated August, 2017.

Cochise County Courthouse, Arizona

Cochise County Courthouse, Arizona

Also See:

Big Nose Kate-Holliday’s Sidekick

Haunted Tombstone

John Henry “Doc” Holliday – Deadly Doctor of the Frontier

Tombstone Historical Text

Tombstone Riches

Wyatt Earp – Frontier Lawman of the American West

Tales of the Shotgun-Messenger Service, by Wyatt Earp


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