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Has Tombstone Become the Town Too Dumb to Die? – Part I

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Tombstone, Arizona is known for one thing. On October 26, 1881 at around 2:30 on a very chilly, windy, overcast afternoon with the threat of snow, eight men faced one another, guns drawn. A minute or so later, three men were dead or dying. One had fled the scene. The other three were injured. Only one man, Wyatt Earp, remained standing, unscathed.

Within minutes of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, newspapers throughout the nation were breathlessly reporting the story. Reporters were dispatched from Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. The ensuing Spicer Inquest became one of the first modern day celebrity trials, with the 1880s version of “Camp OJ” awaiting Judge Wells Spicer’s verdict.

Tombstone, Arizona became a household name.

The moment Hollywood was invented, Wyatt Earp was hunted down like a wanted man. Indeed, he was wanted, as an adviser for the newborn movie industry. Twenty-five years after the Gunfight at the OK Corral, the genre of the “western” was born. Tombstone, Arizona, then floundering, was put on life-support, ready to be revived nearly a century later.

Once upon a time Tombstone was known as the Town Too Tough to Die. These days, though, there are some locals who are calling it the Town Too Dumb to Die. One wonders what mindset would induce the newly elected mayor to begin enforcing “code,” some ancient, some middle-aged, and some new, against flourishing businesses in what appears to be an attempt to force these business into closure? Then, the mayor turns his newly appointed “city marshal” on various business owners, tourists, and townspeople.

No, we’re not talking 1881, John Behan, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and the OK Corral. This is modern day Tombstone.

Up until a few weeks ago, modern day Tombstone had been a wonderful concoction of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the downright funny. It is one of the few places in the world where you hear gunshots and don’t bother to run for cover. Men dressed up like Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, Doc Holiday, John Behan, John Clum, John Ringo, Curly Bill Brocius, the Clantons and the McLaurys roam the streets. No – they swagger along Allen Street, in a gallant attempt to recreate one of this nation’s most infamously romantic periods. Once in awhile a woman well-dressed in period costume can be seen, but most of the "women" who stroll the wooden streets of Tombstone are attired (or not) in the Hollywood version of what a “well dressed” saloon girl should wear, overflowing corset and all.

Add to that the occasional street performer working for tips and the ever-present stage coach tours and you start to get the picture. In the late afternoon people getting off work sometimes don their cowboy attire and ride a horse into town. The next most common sight are people, residents and tourists alike (my mother included), strolling down the sidewalks slurping huge chocolate ice cream cones. Yours truly will often be found either shopping or sitting at a card table in front of or inside Tombstone Old West Books, signing books.

Another common sight on Allen Street is the constant presence of people, often business owners, handing out flyers, handbills, menus, or tickets to the various off-Allen Street eateries, shops, or attractions. One of Tombstone’s difficult little problems is that people rarely get off Allen Street. They don’t realize there is an entire little community, with some very good restaurants off the beaten path. There is nothing allowed on Allen Street to point to Six Gun City, The Tombstone Boarding House B & B, or even Helldorado Town – and the Allen Street merchants and business owners seem to want it that way.

My first hint that something was amiss was last November. I was visiting with a friend who is also the owner of the Tombstone Boarding House Bed and Breakfast. Sylvia was lamenting the economy and her fears that she would be unable to remain in business. Things were slow. She was suffering, but was still able to hold her head above water. Then came the election (or re-election) of Mayor Dusty Escapule, who was determined to enforce Handbill Ordinance 821C.

Sylvia is no longer allowed to give out little handbills or menus pointing to her restaurant a few hundred feet down Fourth Street from Schieffelin Hall. In the Lamplighter, she serves very good Mexican food, and the best margaritas this writer has ever consumed, and this writer has consumed her fair share of margaritas. On Friday and Saturday evenings, Juan de Granada can be found, playing his virtuoso guitar. But Sylvia can’t rely on repeat business alone.

After she was banned from (and cited for) distributing handbills on Allen Street, she took the issue to the city council, where she was belittled and made a laughing-stock. Several of her long-term repeat customers went with her. They were treated very rudely. At the end of the meeting, the city attorney was alleged to have said to a prominent business owner, “Well, I guess we took care of her.”

The second thing the newly elected mayor did when taking office was to appoint a historical commission designed to rubber-stamp his plans to bring the little town, on the National Register of Historic Sites, into something resembling historic authenticity. You see, the National Register of Historic Sites is on record about the lack of “authenticity” on Allen Street.

The previous administration’s answer was to coat Allen Street with dirt, since originally Tombstone had dirt streets. Unfortunately the powers that be failed to take into account the fact that Tombstone, like every other place in the Southwest, is windy. Once upon a time, when Tombstone did have dirt roads, the town had so much water that it was pumped out of the mines and into a wagon, to be sprayed atop the streets on a daily basis, thus settling the dust.

After a few trees were planted along Allen Street (and they do look good), the powers that be decided to use a special theatrical dirt, thereby ending the dust up near the OK Corral, before a few merchants began firing shots.

Tombstone does not take well to change. There can be no other answer to the eternal question of why the little town has survived several fires, economic collapse, the Great Depression, John Wayne’s looting of Bisbee during the filming of McClintock, and the 60s. The popularity of the movies Tombstone and Wyatt Earp served as the heart transplant so badly needed, reviving the community. Tourists began arriving in the proverbial droves.

So many tourists began visiting the town that someone had the bright idea to close off Allen Street between Sixth and Third Streets to through traffic. Parking, once fairly easy, became more difficult. Tempers flared. Shots were threatened, none fired. Friendships were broken, alliances made, and the historic Tombstone, with its quest for “authenticity,” was born.

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About SJ Reidhead

  • http://www.joannehuspek.wordpress.com Joanne Huspek

    I can’t wait to read parts II & III.