Ghost Towns of Cochise County and the road to Tombstone

Back in February when the dining room table was covered with books, notes, pamphlets, maps and website printouts, one of the things that caught our attention was an article entitled “Ghost Towns of Cochise County”.   The article indicated that there were upwards of 50 “ghost towns” in the area known as Cochise County and that it was located in the SE corner of Arizona, with New Mexico it’s easternmost border, and Sonora State, Mexico to the south.

cochise county map

A look at the map of Ghost Towns (above) showed Tombstone to be in the midst of a cluster of towns, and since Tombstone was something we both wanted to see, we just had to find out more about the area as it was definitely within the rough route we had started laying out for journey.

Unbeknownst to us, Southern Arizona has a rich history of ghost towns, and many of them are located in Cochise County which took its name from the legendary Chiricahua Apache war chief, Cochise.  One site suggested that if we wanted to see every ghost town in Arizona and visited one a day for a year, we’d still have some left over!  Holy cow!  We knew we were going to have to be selective.

By the time we got to the SE corner of Arizona, and found ourselves heading east on  the I-10, I looked at that map again, and pretty much “on the fly” decided to turn south on US-80 at the town of Benson, and check out Tombstone.  I figured that regardless of what any other town had to offer, Tombstone was a must-see, and the logical starting place.

IMG_9398As we left the Interstate and turned south for the 24 mile drive to Tombstone, there were two things readily apparent – there are not a lot of people living in this part of the state, and we were surrounded by desert lands (note: there are only 130,000 people living in the entire county).


As we approached Tombstone, we started seeing a proliferation of “tacky” Outdoor billboards for the town, many containing the slogan “The Town Too Tough to Die”.  In fact every magazine and promotional piece we picked up about Arizona included ads for Tombstone that either featured that slogan or promoted the re-enactment of the “Gunfight at the Ok Corral”.

Truth be told, I was a little bit anxious about what we were going to find in Tombstone.  I had this image in my head of an authentic, old, wild west mining town with a rich and colourful history.  At the same time I was aware that in recent years, the town had come dangerously close to losing its status as a National Historic Landmark.  Always a popular tourist destination, Tombstone’s historic integrity was said (by U.S. state officials) to have declined into a blend of authentic history and fake Old West ambiance.

IMG_9435Newer buildings are being presented as old ones by placing historic dates from the 1870s and 1880s on them, and storefronts are painted colors like chartreuse — not found in Tombstone 125 years ago. Some buildings made to look older with faux brick or Spanish tiles were simply not part of the authentic and original Tombstone landscape. Needless to say, I was a bit concerned about the level of commercialism we would encounter.

As we reached the town of Tombstone (from the north), weIMG_9419-edited saw “Boot Hill Cemetery” on the left side of the road, and that became our first stop.  It is not the only “Boot Hill Cemetery”, in the United States, nor the first, but it is definitely the most famous.  The term Boot Hill alludes to the fact that many of its occupants were cowboys who “died with their boots on,” the implication here being they died violently, as in gunfights or by hanging, and not of natural causes.


Originally called the “Tombstone Cemetery”, the plot features the graves  of Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury, the three men who were killed during the famed Gunfight at the OK Corral.


The graveyard is believed to hold over 300 persons, 205 of which are recorded. This was due to some people being buried without record. There is also a separate Jewish cemetery nearby with some markers restored, and there are also marked graves of Chinese immigrants who lived and worked in Tombstone in the late 1800’s.


Tombstone’s “Boot Hill” cemetery was closed in late 1886, as the new “City Cemetery” on Allen Street opened. Thereafter, Boot Hill was referred to as the “old city cemetery” and neglected for a long time. It was used after that only to bury a few outlaws (some legally hanged and one shot in a robbery), as well as a few colorful Western characters, and one man (Emmett Crook Nunnally) who had spent many volunteer hours restoring it.

There is no cost to visit the Boot Hill Graveyard, although to enter the cemetery, you have to pass through the gift shop (full of cheesy souvenirs) where there is a sign asking for donations to help maintain the site.

As you can see from the picture below, here is the first of several “tourist traps” that we encountered along the way, just at the end of the Boot Hill parking lot.


As we rolled out of the parking lot, I continued in my role of tour guide/navigator and began reading to Mary, a little bit of the history of Tombstone.  As the story goes, one day in 1877, Ed Schieffelin, a local prospector was standing in Camp Huachuca (a local U.S. military establishment built to defend the area against Apache attacks), and he looked out at the mountains to the northeast. The rich colors looked very promising to him and he decided to go there and dig a little. He shared his idea with a soldier standing beside him and the soldier warned him about the Apaches who controlled the area, saying to him  “All you’ll find in those hills is your tomb-stone”.

Its most prosperous years were between 1877 and 1890, when the town’s mines produced $85 million in silver bullion and its population grew from 100 to 14,000 in the first seven years.

In it’s heyday, it boasted a bowling alley, four churches, an ice house, a school, two banks, three newspapers, an ice cream parlour, alongside 110 saloons, 14 gambling halls, and numerous dancehalls and brothels.

IMG_9518From the very beginning, Tombstone was known as one of the most notorious and violent towns – where silver was king, although it was also the cultural epicentre of the Southwest.

The “gentlemen and ladies” of Tombstone attended opera at the Schieffelin Opera House, while the miners and cowboys saw shows at the Bird Cage Theatre, described by one newspaper reporter of the time, as “the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast”.


Under the surface of all this prosperity were tensions that grew into deadly conflict. The mining capitalists and townspeople were largely Republicans from the Northern States.  Many of the ranchers in the area were Confederate sympathizers and Democrats. The booming city was only 30 miles from the U.S.–Mexico border and was an open market for beef stolen from ranches in Sonora, Mexico by a loosely organized band of outlaws known as “The Cowboys”.  The Earp brothers – Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan and Warren, arrived in December 1879 and the summer of 1880. They had ongoing conflicts with Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, and other Cowboys members. The Cowboys repeatedly threatened the Earps over many months until the conflict escalated into a confrontation that turned into a shootout, the now-famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

We turned down Allen Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, but could only go a couple of blocks before encountering barriers, and people dressed in period costumes urging visitors to buy their tickets for the last “gunfight” of the day.


We managed to find a parking spot a block away from Allen Street, right outside the  County Courthouse, which now serves as a museum.  I don’t imagine parking would be this easy later in the year, when kids are out of school and there are considerably more tourists out and about.  We timed our arrival in town just right as the old stagecoach was making it’s way past the front of the courthouse.



walking map of TombstoneFrom there we began to walk around, and to set the stage, the entire town of Tombstone from a historical and tourist-related perspective, only stretches a few short blocks in any one direction.

There is a mix of old buildings that date back to the late 1800’s, and newer buildings that are presented as if they are originals, which is what I alluded to earlier in this blog-post.



One building worth special mention is “Big Nose Kate’s Saloon”, which got its start as the Grand Hotel back in 1880.  It was considered one of the finest hotels in the state IMG_9442and during its first few years, the hotel often housed some of Tombstone’s most famous residents including the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Clanton Gang when they came into town. In fact, Ike Clanton and the two McLaury brothers were registered guests the night before the famous OK Corral gunfight.

The Grand Hotel’s luxurious life would be a short one as she did not survive the devastating fire of May 25, 1882. Above ground, the only thing that remained standing were her seven graceful arches and her floor joists on the main level. The rest of the building collapsed into the basement.  Today, the building is home to Big Nose Kate’s Saloon and it holds the Grand Hotel’s original long bar, the only one of which survived the fire of 1882 and is still available for thirsty patrons.


In case you’re wondering who Big Nose Kate was, she was a Hungarian-born prostitute who was the long-time companion and common-law wife of Doc Holliday – the Earp 210px-BigNoseKate_at_40brother’s gambling and drinking  buddy.  She out-lived all of her famous “friends” from Tombstone, passing away at the age of 90, in Prescott, Arizona.  There are varying accounts as to what she saw, and where she was on the day of the famous shoot-out.  She often claimed that she had seen the whole thing from her hotel window and comforted Doc Holliday after the confrontation, as he was supposedly in shock.

Continuing our walk around town, there were signs  explaining the history of the buildings and identifying any points of historical significance, with the most important being anything relating to the famous gunfight.


Speaking of the gunfight, recreations of the famous event are one of the primary reasons why people make the trip to Tombstone, and there is more than one version of it.

tombstone montage

We chose to attend a comedic version of the gunfight and tickets ($7 each) were on sale throughout the town.  We entered the Helldorado Town Western Theme Park where the mock shoot-out was to take place, and found ourselves in the midst of a number of small buildings, all meant to create the sense of being back in the wild west.

It was another incredibly hot day so Mary took the opportunity to “rest” before the show – at least I think that’s what she was doing.  She said she was dying from the heat.


We were then ushered inside the mock town, where as spectators we were sat on bleachers that would give us a ring-side seat to the action.


Before long, the Sheriff arrived and explained to us how the show was going to unfold.  He told us a little bit more about the history of Tombstone during his stand-up routine, and then he introduced the crowd to the two villains.


During the ensuing action, one of the bad guys shot the other bad guy, which makes sense, since bad guys do bad things……


Of course, you know how the story ends.  The Sheriff eventually took down the remaining bad guy and saved the day, and the town.  Cue the ride off into the sunset.


Okay, so there wasn’t a ride off into the sunset, but the show was great fun, and brought our visit to Tombstone to an end.  Since I know first-hand that Mary has a thing for bad-boys (takes one to know one – LOL), she made sure to go and chat with the two villains after the show.


I said I had some reservations about how the level of commercialism was going to affect our visit.  Make no mistake, there is a lot of it, but it did not detract from our visit to Tombstone, and providing you take everything as it is meant to be – fun, your visit will be enjoyable too.

During our entire road-trip, we tried to stick to a plan of being off the road no later than 6:30 PM on any given day so as not to get too worn out, and with only a couple of exceptions we pretty much stuck to that.  After posing for one last picture (see below), we were back in the Jeep by around 4:30 that afternoon.  I checked the map, and saw that we were only 23 miles from the historic mining town of Bisbee. While in Scottsdale, we had read about Bisbee in the weekend travel section of the Arizona Republic newspaper and it sounded like a cute place to visit.  The article mentioned a couple of historic hotels that sounded like they might be worth checking out so we gave Jane (our GPS) the coordinates, and set off in search for our room for the night.



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