One of the last frontier boom-towns in the old American west, Tombstone prospered mostly in the late 1800s. The town is best known for the fight at the O.K. Corral, but what is this small town’s place in America today?
“Those of us who grew up during the days of the TV westerns have a fascination with the Old West and America,” Kenn Barrett, who serves as police, security consultant and trainer for the city of Tombstone, said. “And nothing says it better than Tombstone, the sort of cowboy mecca here.”
If you take a look at the number of people who’ve signed into the visitor’s center since 2010, you see a roller coaster with highs in one year and lows in the next. In the past 5 years, more than 167,000 passed through.
“We have our seasons, we have our ups and our downs,” Barrett continues. “The first Helldorado celebration had people shoulder to shoulder right out here on Allen Street. And during the hayday of TV westerns in the 1950s and 60s, we had a lot and then it tapered off. Then when the movie Tombstone came out in 1993, it boosted up again. Now it’s taking a little bit of a dip, but hopefully with the revival of Westerns on TV and in the movies it’ll pick up again. As younger people become fascinated with the old west.”
Many of the original buildings are still standing. Tourists flock to the historic Bird Cage theatre, which was a saloon, gambling hall, house of ill repute, and theatre all in one. It was also the home of a surprisingly long poker game.
William Hunley, the general manager of the Bird Cage, tells tourists about the game.
“It lasted 8 years, 5 months, and 3 days,” Hunley explains. “It was nonstop 24 hours a day 7 days a week. And the minimum buy-in was a thousand dollars to get into the game. It’d be like three-hundred thirty-thousand dollars today, just to give you an idea.”
And of course, the reference point for anyone who visits is the movie “Tombstone” released in 1993.
“I always tell people when they first come to Tombstone, to watch the movie that’s now 20, 21 years old, the movie Tombstone,” Hunley said. “And then come out here and go through these old buildings like the bird cage, the court house, the O.K. Corral and then when they go home, watch the movie again, and they will understand it so much more than when they watched it the first time.”
Those who visit Tombstone have mixed feelings. Some don’t like that it has become too “touristy” while others say it was on their bucket list.
Larry Crossley was in Tombstone on vacation with his family. He says he is a big western movie fan.
“The world is losing interest, maybe because its just an old hat maybe,” Crossley said. “But I think that, we’re not seeing too many westerns being made and I think it’s a shame, as much a shame as any of our history. Our history is being ignored not only by I think our cinematography but also by our educators, and I think if we don’t pay attention to history we’re going to relive it.”
For many locals, Tombstone also remains a sacred part of Americana.
“It’s America, its history, its part of our Old West history,” Barrett said. “The days when the man solved his problems with his fists and his guns.”
Tombstone’s future is uncertain. The Old West town relies heavily on tourism and the film industry. Residents hope that younger generations will also fall in love with its history, to keep the interest in Westerns, and Tombstone, alive.