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Tombstone, Arizona

Tombstone in 1881

Only a hundred years ago, the land upon which this famous town was built was just a rolling, barren spread of desert, sparsely covered with coarse grass and scrubby bushes, and dotted with brown hills. The Spaniards had once tramped through the lonely valley, looking for gold and silver, never dreaming that the riches they sought lay just beneath their marching feet.

As late as eighteen seventy-seven, the silence was broken only by the stealthy movement of bands of savage Apaches, relentlessly trying to defend their homes against invasion by daring settlers, pushing farther and farther into the wilderness.

Then the creaking of the white man's wagons and the crack of the teamster's whip over the backs of the straining oxen were the new sounds that disturbed the natural stillness: sounds of progress by the white man's standards, threatening sounds from the Indian's point-of-view. Attacks were frequent, and bleached bones beside burned and broken wagons, mute evidence of the determined struggle.

Ed Schieffelin

To protect the pioneers crossing the Apache country, the army established an outpost, sheltered by the Huachuca Mountains. Its mission was to make the San Pedro Valley safe from marauding Apaches, an assignment easier said than done. To the military camp, soon designated Fort Huachuca, came a troop of Indian scouts from the north, and with them, a ragged, bearded prospector who had spent most of his life searching in vain for silver and gold.

Ed Schieffelin was his name, although the soldiers at Fort Huachuca thought "foolhardy" suited him better, because Ed Schieffelin would leave the safety of the Fort to roam alone through the valley days on end, in constant quest of underground riches. "All you'll ever find is your tombstone," the soldiers warned, in grim jest, but the prospector kept searching doggedly.

Chipping away at a ledge of rock on a sloping hill, near a flowing spring, Ed Schieffelin found it thick with veins of rich silver. He staked a claim, and because he was not without humor, he named it "The Tombstone," in ironic recollection of the soldiers' prophesy. The elated prospector journeyed back to civilization to collect a grubstake and partners for further exploration.

A year later, he, his brother Al, and mining engineer Dick Gird recorded the Lucky Cuss claim, and the Tough Nut. Word was spreading, and spreading fast. "Silver in the San Pedros" was the wildfire rumor that brought hundreds of other prospectors, fortune hunters, and camp followers streaming to the once lonely valley.

When the silver strike news brought the first settlers to the new mining district, their homes were tents, or a few crude shacks thrown up near the spring where Ed Schieffelin discovered the Tombstone and Lucky Cuss claims. They called the spot "Watervale," but the hilly terrain was unsuitable for a mushrooming town. A new town was built on a tabletop of land known as Goose flats. Buildings started to rise and more people moved in, and the feeling grew that this was no name for a town that was rapidly expanding into a proud city. There was only one name that was right; the name of the mining claim that had set off the boom. So that's why this town is called "Tombstone." Perhaps you thought the name stemmed from all the shootings that took place here once-upon-a-time, an understandable conclusion, considering the population of Boot Hill!

Crystal Palace Saloon

One of the first buildings, and one of the most imposing in the new town of Tombstone, was the stately Crystal Palace Saloon, built by Frederick Wehrfritz, in 1879. It was first called the Golden Eagle Brewery, but that was soon changed, and mirrors, fine crystal and other luxurious furnishings were hauled in to make the Crystal Palace the finest gathering place in the camp. Along its stately, almost room-length mahogany bar crowded the elite, as well as the not so elite, of bustling Tombstone.

Mine owners, cattle rustlers, lawyers, gunmen, miners, tin horn gamblers, peace officers, highwaymen, ranchers and businessmen mingled in carefully-observed neutrality, feuds, suspicions and hatreds temporarily set aside while in the chandelier-lit Palace. The Crystal Palace of today is the Crystal Palace of the lusty past, meticulously restored as It was when Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Luke Short, Doc Holllday, Johnny Ringo, Buckskin Frank Leslie and contemporaries famous and infamous made the Crystal Palace their social headquarters.

Yes, Tombstone's buildings were springing up one after another, and old Goose flats was getting crowded. Then, in one horrifying instant, came the first disaster that started the legend of "the town too tough to die." Two bartenders were trundling a barrel of condemned whiskey out of the Arcade Saloon just above the Oriental on Allen Street, when suddenly, one dropped his cigar. The whiskey exploded, and in a blinding flash the Arcade was a mass of flames. The fire spread north to Fremont and south to Toughnut Street, sweeping most of two square blocks. Up in licking flames went the Oriental Saloon, Myers Clothing Store, the bank and the side-by-side, hole-In-the-wall saloons and squat offices, the wooden buildings catching like fuel-soaked torches.

Lynching at Tombstone, Arizona, Feb. 22, 1884
John Heith was implicated in the robbery of the Goldwater-Castan[e]da store in Dec. 1883, wherein there were three men and one woman killed. The other five men were apprehended and legally hanged at Tombstone, March 6, 1884.

In less than an hour, sixty-six stores, restaurants, saloons and business houses were destroyed. A deathblow? Not for Tombstone. A year later, a second major fire leveled much of the business section; but almost routinely, Tombstone merchants re-ordered supplies, re-hired carpenters and adobe masons and started all over again. Life was too good, even if somewhat precarious, to let the town die. But one thing about natural disasters, they took people's minds off the man-made tragedies that were earning for Tombstone a reputation so bad that President Chester Arthur threatened to order martial law.

Forever unrecorded by man will be the number of sudden deaths that took place in and around our town during its sometimes lawless, semi-civilized early days. The Tombstone Epitaph reports countless killings during those first four years, ranging from gunfights to lynchings to Indian ambush. Those reported can only be a fraction of the killings that occurred.

Most famous bloodletting of all, of course, was that session near the rear entrance of the O.K. Corral, and, as you know, that was just the beginning of a deadly feud. It was dark when they tried to "get" Virgil Earp, a couple of months later, as he crossed Fifth Street near the Crystal Palace. Five shots were fired from ambush. Three tore into the Crystal Palace; two struck Virgil, leaving him a partial cripple.

The next time midnight assassins struck, they made sure their target was well lighted. On the evening of March 18, 1882, Morgan Earp attended a performance in Schieffelin Hall, then went to the Morgan and Hatch Billiard Parlor on Allen Street for a game of pool. Suddenly, shots ripped through the window, and Morgan dropped.

This time, the aim was more deadly. Morgan, stretched out on a couch, prophetically told his brother, Wyatt: "This is the last game of pool I'll ever play." Frank Stilwell, who reportedly divided his time between holding up stages and serving as a Cochise County Deputy Sheriff, was accused by a coroner's jury, and Wyatt Earp shot Stilwell to death in the Tucson train yard when he saw Stilwell stalking around the train carrying Morgan's body to California for burial.

Finale of the Earp-Clanton feud came a few days later, when the Earps and Doc Holliday, and a small group of gun-hands they'd collected, met Curley Bill and eight of his gang near Burleigh Springs. The guns of both parties blazed away without a spoken word. A witness said Curly Bill was killed; the outlaws denied it; but the high-living highwayman and rustler, leader of the remnants of the Clanton gang, never again was seen in the Arizona Territory. A day later, with warrants for the murder of Frank Stilwell sworn out against them, the Earps and Doc Holliday rode out of town for Colorado. Thus ended the Earp Era in Tombstone, on March twenty-third, 1882.

Harold O. Love. Tombstone Epitaph. March 1979.


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The Old West At Its Best - And Worst | Boothill | All The Major Towns Had Brothels | John P. Clum | The Slopers And The Easterners Soon Collided In Tombstone | The Gunfight At The O.K. Corral | Courageous And Trustworthy Men | The Clanton Gang aka The Cowboys | The West's Deadliest Dentist | Doc Holliday | The Earp Family | Morgan Seth Earp | John Peters Ringo | Virgil Earp | Baxter Warren Earp | No Individual Has Caused Greater Controversy In Western History | Wyatt Earp
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