Tombstone, Arizona is forever embedded in American Old West lore for its status as an outpost for scoundrels and heroes, and as the site of the infamous 1881 gunfight at the OK Corral (the actual gunfight happened near the OK Corral, not in it, but we’ll leave that subject for others to cover in-depth) in which the Earp brothers gunned down Tom and Frank McLaury (McLowrey) and Billy Clanton.
Before the gunfight, however, Tombstone was a town like many others in the southwest–a mining town that boomed with the discovery of silver, and withered as the boom went bust.
At one time, Tombstone reportedly had more than 10,000 residents, but in 1881 a series of unfortunate events started the ball rolling on the decline of Tombstone. In March, the Sulphuret Silver Mine struck water, which began to seep into the mine. On June 22nd, a fire destroyed the eastern half of the business district, 66 businesses in total. The following year, a second mine struck water, seriously complicating mining efforts, and another more serious fire devastated Tombstone, destroying nearly the entire business district. The city lacked the water to properly fight the fire, so, in keeping with the philosophy of the day, buildings in the path of the fire were demolished with dynamite to deny fuel for the fire.
Rebuilding commenced immediately, but in 1886, another fire impacted the silver mining industry, and by 1890, the US Census reported the population of Tombstone at 1,900. Ten years later it had fallen to 700. People were leaving in droves.
Tombstone received another blow in 1931 when it was stripped of its status as county seat and the county offices moved to Bisbee. Just a few years later, these photos were taken by photographers on behalf of the United States Farm Security Administration and the Historic American Buildings Survey.
These photos, taken between 1937 and 1940, represent a unique moment in time for Tombstone–after the pioneer-era silver boom but before the air-conditioned car culture that would bring tourists en masse.
The Crystal Palace Saloon had a tumultuous history due to the Tombstone fires, and later, prohibition. It was sold in 1963 to a buyer with an interest in restoring it to its former glory, and it underwent a restoration that left it looking very different.
The bank, on the corner of 3rd and Allen, is an adobe brick structure covered in stucco, with wood trim and floors.
The posters taped in the window advertise a circus in nearby Douglas, Arizona. “Al. G. Barnes and Sells-Floto Circus, Douglas, Afternoon and Night, Tuesday, November 9.”
The Bird Cage was opened as a Variety Theatre and Saloon in 1881, and escaped the fire of 1882. At the height of Tombstone’s popularity, the bar in the front portion of the theatre was open 24-hours. The theatre was lit by natural gas, and the gas fixtures were still in place at the time of these photos. The Bird Cage was closed for a time after the boom, but reopened to the public in 1929. According to Miguel Slack, who collected the data for the Historic American Buildings Survey, this place was a museum and cafe at the time these photos were taken in 1937.
The sign on the right says “Oldest Theatre in the Southwest.”
Tombstone’s Episcopal Church, made of adobe brick, looking west from Third & Safford Streets.
Above: Tombstone City Hall
The Cochise County Courthouse was built in 1882. It became a hotel for a time, and also stood vacant for a few years after the county seat moved to Bisbee, but today it is a museum.
The spiral fire escape of the former Cochise County Courthouse.
The former Tombstone Fire Department was described by the photographer as “abandoned” at the time of these photos.
In 1961, Tombstone received a designation as a National Historic Landmark District, but in 2004, the National Park Service declared the designation threatened due to “inappropriate” alterations. Some of the infractions included putting “historic” dates on new buildings, failing to distinguish new construction from historic structures, and more. Although these judgments have been controversial, many of Tombstone’s historic buildings have been appropriately restored with due respect to heritage.
The sleepy days depicted in these photographs would not last. With the coming of the highway system and air-conditioned cars, people would flock to Tombstone. Today, there are a number of festivals in Tombstone, including Wyatt Earp Days, Salute to the Buffalo Soldier Days, and Helldorado Days, and more than 450,000 tourists visit this tiny town of 1,400 every year.
Boothill Graveyard in Tombstone is the best known of a number of cemeteries dubbed “Boothill” in the southwest, so-named for the gunfighters and outlaws who so commonly died with their boots on.
A panorama of Tombstone taken in 1909 by the West Coast Art Company. Click to enlarge.
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