Breaking down the ‘Town Too Tough to Die’

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May 12, 2012, 9:00 pm EDT

(Photo by Todd DeFeo / (c) 2012)

TOMBSTONE, Ariz. -- It's hard to describe Tombstone in a single word.

"The Town Too Tough to Die" probably lies somewhere between historic re-creation of a southern Arizona mining town and a Hollywood movie that's come to life on dusty western streets. Shootouts are a daily occurrence.

Stage coaches offer visitors tours of the town. Cowboys and lawmen argue in the street while camera-wielding tourists snap pictures from the street's boardwalks in front of old or refurbished buildings.

Today, the town is best known for the events of Oct. 28, 1881, when Wyatt Earp, his brothers and Doc Holliday gunned down three cowboys in what is remembered as the "Gunfight at the OK Corral." This town, once among the largest in Arizona, holds an important place in the state's history, even if more for the mining history than the gunfight.

A fun way to start the day in Tombstone is with a stagecoach ride. The bumpy ride is an informative way to see the town -- and with a knowledgeable driver, it can provide a back story about the places that helped shape the town.

Perhaps the most important institution in town is The Tombstone Epitaph. Founded in 1880, this famous newspaper is today the oldest continuously published newspaper in the Grand Canyon State. As founder John Clum noted: “Every tombstone needs an epitaph.”

In 1881, the newspaper reported on the now-infamous “Shootout at the OK Corral” and has since been transformed into a monthly journal of western history and museum. While the newspaper office is no longer working newsroom, it is home to a rather interesting museum dedicated to telling the story about newspapers.

For a real window into the past, visit The Bird Cage theater. Often described as “the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast,” walking into this old theater truly is tantamount to taking a step back in time. When the establishment shuttered in 1889, its doors were sealed until 1934 when new owners opened the building and found a literal window to the past.

On the way out of town, be sure to visit Boothill Graveyard (or Cemetery). Between 1879 and 1884, this was the town cemetery. Its permanent residents include Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury — the three men gunned down during the now-infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. By the 1920s, the cemetery was in dire need of restoration.

Now restored, the cemetery is one of the city’s main tourist destinations, in part because of its sometimes humorous epitaphs (for example: “Here lies Lester Moore / four slugs from a 44 / no Les no more”).

For anyone especially interested in learning the full -- and arguably more historically accurate -- story of Tombstone, a visit to the Tombstone Courthouse is an absolute must.

Built in 1882, this building served administrators of the then-newly created Cochise County until 1929 when the county seat was relocated to Bisbee. At one point, a hotel was planned for the structure, but today the courthouse houses a museum dedicated to telling the complete (and historically accurate) story of Tombstone.

No trip would be complete without watching a re-enactment of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Complete with Clantons, McLaurys, Earps and a poetic Holliday who delights the crowd, there-enactment tells the story of the events leading up to the shootout. The theatrical performance, performed twice a day, is clearly a crowd favorite, with audience members chiming in with their favorite lines from the movie "Tombstone."

Still, when you’re here, you might as well experience Tombstone in all its glory.


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Todd DeFeo loves to travel anywhere, anytime, taking pictures and notes. An award-winning reporter, Todd revels in the experience and the fact that every place has a story to tell. He is also editor of Railfanning.org.




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