The Tombstone Economy


My father took me to one movie, in 1957, when I was eleven years old. Our small town had two movie theaters then, the Roxy and the Ford, but we went to the State, in the larger town three miles north. This might seem not worth noting, but back then a trip to Kittanning, with its riverside park, big courthouse, and shop-filled streets, was an adventure. The movie was Gunfight at the OK Corral, starring Burt Lancaster as Marshall Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as “Doc” Holliday. I still have a vague memory of the famous shootout. Great stuff. The good guys bring the outlaws to justice. Holiday, the sickly notorious gambler, comes to the aid of the Earp brothers, doing one good deed before he goes to Colorado to die.

The actual gunfight took place in Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881. Tombstone is in southeastern Arizona, seventy miles from Tucson. It was founded in 1879 by prospector Ed Schieffelin, who had hit a rich vein of silver in a plateau near the present-day location of the town. He named his claim “Tombstone” after a soldier he met told him that the only rock he was likely to collect in these dry and dangerous hills (the Apache were a threatening presence for whites) was his own tombstone. Soon Tombstone, which took its name from the prospector’s claim, was a mining boom town, with as many as 15,000 residents within a few years. Eastern capital soon dominated the economy, while Irishmen and Germans did the mining and Chinese and other immigrants provided the services (there is a forgotten and sordid history of Chinese settlement, persecution, and dispossession throughout the west, even in small towns in sparsely populated states like Arizona, Wyoming, and Idaho. We learned about this in 2006 at an interesting exhibit we saw at the University of Wyoming Art Museum in Laramie). Poor Shieffelin sold his claim for $10,000, missing out on the millions of dollars of silver the mine produced. Silver was big business in southern Arizona, with many mines and silver mills. By 1881, 490 million troy ounces had been mined. Several mills operated along the San Pedro river a few miles west of town. When the silver mines petered out and the demand for silver fell when the United States demonetized the metal, a boom in copper began, setting the stage fro epic battles between mine owners and miners, the latter represented by radical unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World. In the summer of 1917, when striking miners in nearby Bisbee threatened the war effort, 2,000 armed vigilantes shipped more than 1,000 men to a New Mexican desert here they were abandoned.

Tombstone quickly won a reputation as a wide open, semi-lawless town. If you have ever watched the HBO series Deadwood, you’ll know what this means. Too many men, with money from the mines, with too little to do outside work except drink and gamble. There were loosely knit gangs called “cow-boys,” some of them Confederate Army veterans who had drifted west after the war, and who worked the nearby ranches and engaged in various illegal activities such as cattle rustling and robbery. There was a tension between the rougher elements inside and outside town and the mine owners and businessmen. Interestingly, the Earp brothers were Yankees; Wyatt’s older brothers joined the Union Army. Wyatt himself was only thirteen when the war began, but he ran away from home and tried to join. The main adversaries of the Earps and Holliday in the shootout were the Clantons, southerners, some of whom served in the Confederate Army. There was considerable pro-slavery sentiment in the Arizona Territory (a number of Civil War skirmishes took place in Arizona; the best-known took place near the famous landmark, Picacho Peak, which is between Tucson and Phoenix), and many former Confederates drifted west, where criminal activity was often mixed with legal enterprises such as ranching and farming. The “cow-boys” were probably similar to the characters associated with the James Gang, who farmed and robbed from their bases in southwest Missouri and who were also Confederates.

Tombstone began a long period of decline when the silver mines played out, and by 1900 the population was below 1,000. A railroad connection in 1903 and the fact that Tombstone was the seat of Cochise County saved the town from extinction. The town center had been rebuilt after devastating fires, and fortunately for its future many of the buildings remained intact, laying the basis for the tourism that ultimately kept Tombstone alive. The downtown was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1961, and today thousands of visitors come to see what an old west town looked like and to inspect the site of the gunfight. A major attraction is the cemetery, Boot Hill, where many of Tombstone’s most colorful characters are buried, though not the Earps or “Doc” Holliday. Wyatt Earp is buried in California, and Holliday in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. I have seen “Doc’s” grave. The headstone says “He died in bed.”

Karen and I visited Tombstone in early December. We had been planning to visit for two years, urged to do so by the couple who ran the bed and breakfast where we had stayed for several months (bunking in the husband’s artist studio at a reasonable monthly rate). Val, the artist, is an aficionado of the west; he knows most of the old cowboy actors still living. So we figured that if he and his wife liked Tombstone, it must be worth seeing. They had taken us to see the Amerind Museum in the amazing Texas Canyon (Don’t miss the Geronimo exhibits; they’ll break your heart) and the Chiricahua National Monument not far away. We enjoyed these immensely, so we figured Tombstone was a sure bet.

Let me say now that the best part of our visit was the drive. From Tucson you take Interstate 10 east toward El Paso, turning south at Benson, Exit 303, on Highway 90, toward Fort Huachuca (another massive military base in the desert). Then go east on Highway 82 to Tombstone. After the exit, the land widens into a large valley with ground cover of tall grasses instead of desert plants. (We took a different route home, staying on 82 west of 90 and then turning north along Highway 83, through Sonoita and up down steep and beautiful hills back to Interstate 10.). RV parks abound along Highway 82. Snow birds park their Winnebagos and Airstreams for rhe winter, sometimes setting up temporary towns, sometimes complete with flea market shopping centers, where they renew old acquaintances and make new friends. We always wonder when we see such things—what kind of people do this. What do you do all day long in the middle of nowhere? The desert has abundant charms, but living in an RV, here? Not our cup of tea.

We drove through Tombstone—82 is four lanes from one end of town to the other—and turned around to park. The old town is along Allen Street—several blocks of one and two story wooden buildings, many with historical markers. There are a few admirable private homes and around one corner the fine old courthouse, which is now a museum. We were immediately accosted by barkers urging us to take a stagecoach ride or catch the next Tombstone Trolley. “The next shootout is at two-o’clock,” intoned a man dressed in old time western gear. “Margaritas two dollars.” A women yelled from across a street, “Next mine tour at 1:15.” We stopped at the visitors’ center. Karen asked the attendant a question, and this slightly addled individual started to shout at her. We looked for a brochure that would tell us about Tombstone’s history, but all we saw were ads for the tourist “attractions,” mainly shops and restaurants. The courthouse turned museum reeked of must and mold but charged a fee nonetheless. The “Bird Cage Theater,” where “Doc” Holliday dealt Faro, describes itself this way:

The world famous Bird Cage Theatre, also referred to as The Bird Cage Opera House Saloon. This was a fancy way in the 1880’s of describing a combination saloon, gambling hall and a house of ill repute. Well, that was the Bird Cage Theatre and it was known across America by its unreputable reputation. In 1882, the New York Times referred to the Bird Cage as, “the Roughest, Bawdiest, and most Wicked night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast. For nine years it never closed its doors, operating 24 hours a day. During this period, 16 gun and knife fights took some 26 lives. There are still 140 bullet holes through-out the building, marking the ceilings, walls, and floors.

You can tour the Bird Cage for $10 a person. Why you’d want to, I don’t know.

Cheap souvenir and “antique” shops abound on Allen Street, as do restaurants, which charge fairly high prices for mundane food. An elderly woman, presumably the owner of the restaurant whose menu we were perusing, told us as she passed by us on the sidewalk assured is that “everything is homemade, even the desserts.” Sure. We walked away from Allen Street to see what was on the outskirts of town. Long in the tooth bed and breakfasts, some cheap motels, a few cute cottages, and a generally ramshackle and rundown appearance. The library used to be the train station, and since like many such stations, it is attractive, we went inside. The librarian wasn’t in the mood to talk. Perhaps she thought that strangers should be out and about spending money.

Everything about Tombstone screams tourist trap, nothing more so than Boot Hill. The old cemetery is at the western edge of town and is the most famous “Boot Hill” In the United States. This is a public cemetery, so we were suspicious when we saw that it was surrounded by a large and gated wall. You have to go inside a building, where you can purchase memorabilia and snacks, to get to the graves. There is no fee, but you have to pay $2 to get a grave guide. I foolishly paid and we went to see the resting places of the most notorious denizens of this southwestern sin city. What we saw outside has to be one of the biggest tourist scams I’ve seen. Each grave consists of a uniform pile of rocks, laid about a foot high above the presumable remains of assorted murderers, murder victims, thieves, those wh succumbed to dread diseases, an prostitutes. A cheap wooden cross identifies the deceased. Not one headstone, just one inscription. We went back inside and asked an oversized man who was intently counting the day’s take, why there were no headstones and why no ordinary people were buried here. He said that the wooden head markers had all rotted. And most of the good folks in the graveyard had been moved across the highway to a new cemetery. Some might still be buried underneath the parking lot, he told us. Only those of ill repute were left behind, and we are to believe that exhaustive research has identified the man who was found dead at the bottom of a mine shaft, stabbed, and who is now buried in one of numbered plots identified in the $2 brochure. This is a real P.T. Barnum enterprise. As is Allen Street. Its designation as a National Historic Landmark District has been compromised by all the hucksterism. The Wikipedia entry cited in the references below points out the following:

Placing “historic” dates on new buildings

Failing to distinguish new construction from historic structures

Covering authentic historic elevations with inappropriate materials

Replacing historic features instead of repairing them

Replacing missing historic features with conjectural and unsubstantiated materials

Building incompatible additions to existing historic structures and new incompatible buildings within the historic district

Using illuminated signage, including blinking lights surrounding historic signs

Installing hitching rails and Spanish tile-covered store porches when such architectural features never existed within Tombstone

The truth of Tombstone can be seen in its demographic and economic data. 1,562 residents; household income 30 percent below the state average; housing prices low and falling; percent of people with higher education “significantly below” the state average; median age “significantly above” the state average’ over 40 percent of men working in construction (mostly nonunion), accommodations/food service, and arts/entertainment/recreation (read stage coach drivers and fake cowboys for the daily shootouts); 25 percent of women working in accommodations/food service. A town of middle-income retirees come to enjoy the warm weather, living with low wage workers and proprietors “servicing” the tourists. We noticed that the barkers and hucksters had a look of desperation on their faces. Will the downturn in the economy spell our doom? A hard-looking women sitting on a bench told a friend that she was going back to Minnesota. No doubt the stage coach drivers, shootout actors, cooks, dishwashers, bed and breakfast owners, motel room attendants, and trailer park attendants face a tough winter.

To get the taste of Tombstone out of our mouths, we stopped at the ghost town of Fairbank on our way back to Tucson. Fairbank was another boom town, blessed with a water supply from the San Pedro river. It was stagecoach stop for those going to Tombstone, and with the advent of silver mining, it became a railroad entrepot, with a silver mill, a school, a hotel, saloons, restaurants, a Wells Fargo office, and other assorted signs of civilization. After the silver boom ended, the heirs to the cattle company that was the original land grant designee for the region asserted claim to the town and forced many residents to leave. The homeowners destroyed their houses rather than leave them to the company. A few people remained, however, and Fairbank survived into the 1970s. In 1987 the Bureau of Land Management acquired the land, and it is now part of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. We looked around the ruins and took a short hike to the town’s cemetery, which sits on a small hill. What vandals haven’t destroyed, time and the weather have. Some of the graves had been protected by wire fences but none of these were intact. We found some faded markers amidst the mess, but it was impossible to read them fully. Inside one of the grave sites I saw a small metal container. I put a dollar bill inside it, for luck and in memory of the dead long forgotten there. Adios, amigo, whoever you were.

Michael D. Yates is Associate Editor of Monthly review magazine.He is the author of Cheap Motels and Hot Plates: an Economist’s Travelogue and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy. Yates can be reached at mikedjyates@msn.com


For an overview of Tombstone, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tombstone,_Arizona. For contemporary economic data, see http://www.city-data.com/city/Tombstone-Arizona.html. Notes on the Exhibit at the University of Wyoming, go to http://www.uwyo.edu/artmuseumimages/docs/vanishingredo.pdf). The Amerind Museum site is (see www.amerind.org. If you are planning a trip to the remarkable rock formations of the Chiricahua National Monument, check out (http://www.nps.gov/chir/). Don’t miss the bizarre formations in the Texas Canyon, right along Interstate 10, west of Willcox and north of the Chiricahuas. On the gunfight, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunfight_at_the_O.K._Corral. On the Civil War in Arizona, try http://www.discoverseaz.com/History/Civil_War.html. Louis Proyect has written an interesting essay on Jesse James and his times at http://www.swans.com/library/art14/lproy47.html. Some interesting information on Fairbank is at http://www.legendsofamerica.com/AZ-Fairbank.html.





Michael D. Yates is the Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press. He can be reached at mikedjyates@msn.com. He welcomes comments.

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