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In the summer of 1877, prospector Ed Schieffelin was working the hills east of the San Pedro River when he struck a vein of silver ore in a high plateau called Goose Flats. While telling a soldier about his discovery, the soldier allegedly stated that the only rock Schieffelin was likely to collect in that dangerous area would be his own tombstone. Undeterred by the warning, Schieffelin filed his claim under the name "The Tombstone."

The town of Tombstone was founded in 1879, taking its name from the mining claim, and soon became a boomtown. Fueled by mineral wealth, Tombstone was a city of 1,000 by early 1881, and within another year Tombstone had become the seat of the new (Cochise County), with a population between 5,000 and 15,000.

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 It boasted such modern conveniences as refrigeration (including ice cream and even ice skating), running water, telegraph and limited telephone service, and a newspaper aptly named the Tombstone Epitaph.

Capitalists and businessmen moved in from the eastern U.S. Mining was carried out by immigrants from Europe, chiefly Cornwall, Ireland and Germany. An extensive service industry (laundry, construction, restaurants, hotels, etc.) was provided by mainly Chinese and other immigrants.

Precise figures of the value of the gold and silver which was mined in Tombstone are difficult to come by. In 1883, writer Patrick Hamilton estimated that the total value of gold and silver taken from Tombstone during the first four years of activity was $25,000,000. In 1902, W. P. Blake came up with figures which are believed to be much more accurate at $3,000,000.  As a consequence of the vast amount of riches which were being distributed, lawsuits started to become very prevalent.  Between 1880 and 1885 courts were clogged with activity, with most cases having to do with valuable properties.

As a result, lawyers began to settle in Tombstone and became even wealthier than the miners and those who financed the mining expeditions. In addition, because many of the lawsuits required expert analysis of the underground, many geologists and engineers found employment in Tombstone and settled there. In the end, a thorough mapping of the area was completed by these experts, one which was considered to be better than any other mining district of the West.

The City of Tombstone was quite wealthy and much money was spent during its boom times. Growing in sophistication, Tombstone’s first newspaper, the Nugget, was established in the fall of 1879. The Tombstone Epitaph, the only newspaper so named in the world, was founded on May 1, 1880.  As a consequence of an increase in population, saloons brought in wealth, and a variety of stores began to emerge. Visitors expressed their amazement at the quality and diversity of products which were becoming readily available in the area. In addition, citizens of Tombstone dressed well and up-to-date fashion could be seen in this growing mining town.

Without railroad access, the increasingly sophisticated Tombstone was relatively isolated, deep in a Federal territory that was largely unpopulated desert and wilderness. Tombstone and its surrounding countryside also became known as one of the deadliest regions in the West. Southern gangs from the surrounding countryside, known as "cow-boys", were at odds with the northern capitalists and immigrant miners who ran the city and mines.

The city council of Tombstone at one point created laws preventing its own citizens from going about the town while armed. These laws were not in force outside the town, as Apaches held most of the countryside and small arms were needed for protection.

People arriving in town or leaving it were required to deposit or pick up their firearms. On October 26, 1881, this situation famously exploded in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, leading to a family and political feud that resulted in multiple deaths. The Earp Vendetta Ride resulted from the O.K. Corral gunfight and eventually led to Wyatt Earp's retreat from the territory to Colorado.

On December 25, 1881 the Bird Cage Theater opened, and in 1882 the New York Times reported that "the Bird Cage Theatre is the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast."

Decline as a boomtown
Since Tombstone was in the desert, a company built a pipeline to supply the town with water. No sooner was this pipeline built than Tombstone's silver mines struck water.

As a result of relative lack of water and quick wooden construction, Tombstone experienced major fires in June 1881 and May 1882. The second fire was particularly destructive and signaled the end of the classic old boomtown mining city. After the mid-1880s, when the silver mines had been tapped out, the main pump failed, causing many mines to be flooded with deep groundwater, and Tombstone declined rapidly. The U.S. census found it had fewer than 1900 residents in 1890, and fewer than 700 residents in 1900.

The 1900 census was a minimum, however, and Tombstone was saved from becoming a ghost town after the decline of silver mining, partly by its status as the Cochise County seat. Even the county seat was later moved by popular vote to nearby Bisbee in 1929. However, the classic Cochise County Courthouse and adjacent gallows yard in Tombstone is preserved as a museum.

Tombstone is home to perhaps the most famous graveyard of the Old West, Boot Hill. Buried at the site are various victims of violence and disease in Tombstone's early years, including those from the O.K. Corral. Boot Hill (also known as the old city cemetery) was also the destination for bad-men and those lynched or legally hanged in Tombstone. Admission to this historic site is free and donations are accepted.

The lot in which the historic gunfight at the O.K. Corral occurred in 1881 is also preserved, but this has been walled off, and admission is charged. However, since much of this street fight occurred in Tombstone's Fremont Street (modern Highway 80), much of this site is also viewable without admission charge.

According to Guinness, the world's largest rosebush was planted in Tombstone in 1885 and still flourishes today in the city's sunny climate. This Lady Banksia rose now covers 8,000 sq feet of the roof on an inn, and has a 12 feet circumference trunk. The rose bush is also walled off, and admission is charged.

Currently, tourism and western memorabilia are the main commercial enterprises; a July 2005 CNN article notes that Tombstone receives approximately 450,000 tourist visitors each year. This is about 300 tourists/year for each permanent resident. In contrast to its heyday, when it featured saloons open 24 hours and numerous houses of prostitution, Tombstone is now a staid community with few businesses open late.

Performance events help preserve the town's wild-west image and expose it to new visitors. Helldorado Days is Tombstone's oldest festival, and celebrates the community's wild days of the 1880s. Started in 1929 (coincidentally the year Wyatt Earp died), the festival is held on the third weekend of every October (loosely corresponding to the date of the O.K. Corral gunfight) and consists of gunfight reenactment shows, street entertainment, fashion shows and a family-oriented carnival.

Historic District
The Tombstone Historic District is a National Historic Landmark District. The town's focus on tourism has threatened the town's designation as a National Historic Landmark District, a designation it earned in 1961 as "one of the best preserved specimens of the rugged frontier town of the 1870s and '80s."

In 2004, the National Park Service (NPS) declared the designation threatened, seeking to work with the community to develop an appropriate stewardship program. The inappropriate alterations to the district cited by the NPS include:

  • Placing "historic" dates on new buildings
  • Failing to distinguish new construction from historic structures
  • Covering authentic historic elevations with inappropriate materials
  • Replacing historic features instead of repairing them
  • Replacing missing historic features with conjectural and unsubstantiated materials
    Building incompatible additions to existing historic structures and new incompatible buildings within the historic district
  • Using illuminated signage, including blinking lights surrounding historic signs
  • Installing hitching rails and Spanish tile-covered store porches when such architectural features never existed within Tombstone.

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