Perhaps the closest you will ever get to the rough and tumble, wild and woolly days of the Old West is a visit to Tombstone, Arizona. The dusty streets and wood-planked sidewalks make you feel as if you’ve been time-warped right back into the days of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. The town is full of shops, restaurants and attractions that strive to bring the 1880’s era of western history to life. Having visited this frontier town several times in my life, here are my top FIVE favorite things to see and do while visiting Tombstone.
- O.K. Corral and Historama
- Streets of historic Tombstone
- Big Nose Kate’s Saloon
- Bird Cage Theater
- Boot Hill Cemetery
If there is only ONE thing synonymous with Tombstone, it would have to be the O.K. Corral. Home to the infamous gunfight that left three outlaw cowboys dead and two of the Earp brothers wounded – the O.K. Corral is an excellent first stop while visiting the old west town. Located on historic Allen between 3rd and 4th Streets, a ticket to see the actual location includes a reenactment of the shootout, a presentation about the history of Tombstone at the Historama, a free tour of the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper (including a souvenir reprint of the 1881 newspaper documenting the shootout) and more.
I love to watch the Historama (located inside next to the ticket counter) the very first thing. It sort of gives an overview of the “who, what, where” of Tombstone and prepares you for what is to come. Presented every half hour, on the hour, this very hokey multi-media show is the exact same one that I first watched as a child in the late 1960’s. That is a fact! It has not been updated since it began and at this point – it would be a supreme disappointment if it were to change!
Narrated by Vincent Price, it tells the story of Tombstone’s early years – first it’s Apache history and then it’s mining history when Ed Schieffelin first discovered silver in a nearby mine and named the town Tombstone. It tells about the fires that nearly destroyed the town. And it tells about the unrest and lawlessness that abounded – the outlaws of the day, leading to both the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and later Morgan Earp’s murder. All of which earned the town its reputation as “the town too tough to die”. (You can buy a T-shirt that says that right there!)
After the Historama, make your way through the souvenir shop to the back of the building that leads into the corral itself and an outdoor theater. Here there are actually two reenactments. The first one features life-sized statues that come to life when you push a button. I like this one because it goes right along with the hokey charm of the Historama. The gunfighter’s arms robotically swing into place as they shoot their guns. Their voices and the zing of gunfire echo from a speaker hidden somewhere behind a rock. (I remember this from my childhood too.) Although pleasantly cheesy, they are in the exact location where all the gunfighters stood during the actual onslaught – so it’s historically
The second reenactment features live actors at the Streets of Tombstone Theater located across from the corral in the back of the property. These actors depict Deputy Town Marshal Wyatt Earp along with his friend, Doc Holliday, and brother’s, Virgil and Morgan Earp. The drama features the historical disagreements leading up to the deadly encounter, as well as pop, pop, pop of gunfire depicting the 30-second duel itself, with the outlaw McLaury’s and the Clanton’s. Coupled with a bit of comedy and narrated by Doc Holliday, the presentation interacts with the audience while educating the crowd about the events that took place that fateful day.
There are many historical items on display to explore before or after the presentations too. Several exhibits including C.S. Fly’s Photographic Studio featuring portraits of early Native Americans, including Geronimo, who allowed Fly to photograph him while still at war with the United States. A blacksmith’s stable, period buggies and saddles are also on display. And don’t forget to stop in at the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper office/museum down the street for a free souvenir reprint of the edition featuring the article about the O.K. Corral gunfight. Contact Info: 326 East Allen St., Tombstone, AZ 85638 / 520 457-3456 / www.okcorral.com
STREETS OF HISTORIC TOMBSTONE:
After watching the gunfight and learning all about the history of Tombstone you’ll probably have a “hankerin”’ to “mosey” down the sidewalk and explore the town. You might be in the mood to dress up in legit western garb for a picture to commemorate your visit. Or maybe it’s always been your dream to kick up dust while riding through the streets in a stagecoach.
You’ll probably have to stop in one of the many shops lining both sides of the street where you’ll find everything from real-deal western wear, to beautiful turquoise and coral jewelry, to cheap souvenirs … and everything in between! (Mr. Jones really, really wants one of those long, duster Western coats like Kurt Russell wears in the movie Tombstone – but just where to keep it in the RV, right?)
I love all of the signs and historical plaques you find mounted here and there telling about random things that took place in this rowdy western town – many of the locations now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Even many of the shops where you might be shopping for T-shirts or turquoise were once locations of events we’ve always learned about in history books and the movies.
BIG NOSE KATE’S SALOON:
After all that shopping, I reckon you’ve worked up a mighty thirst and need a little something to wet your whistle! While there are a several places to grab a snack or a meal along Allen Street, my very favorite place to belly up to the bar is Big Nose Kate’s Saloon.
The saloon is named after Doc Holliday’s longtime companion Mary Katharine Horony-Cummins, aka Big Nose Kate, who was a prostitute and his common-law wife. The saloon offers a full bar, soft drinks and a pretty good menu with items like Pistol Pete’s Pastrami Sandwich, Curly Bill’s Brisket Dinner, or Goldie’s Famous Overstuffed Reuben – it’s the Reuben that “won the west”.
There are loads of interesting pictures and art lining the walls (some that will make you blush) and if you want you can dress up like a dance hall girl for a souvenir picture on the bar or atop the piano. There’s live music every afternoon sure to get your toes to tappin’ and plenty of rowdy good times wholesome enough for the young’uns too.
And before you go, take a trip downstairs to check out not only the gift shop, but to see the “Swamper’s” secret bedroom. The Swamper – a janitor – back when the saloon was the Grand Hotel, lived in the dark basement and in the privacy of his room, secretly tunneled his way to a nearby mine shaft that ran beneath the building. He squirreled away treasure from a rich vein of silver and his sparse living quarters are on display in the gift shop today. Contact Info: 417 East Allen St., Tombstone, AZ 85638 / 520 457-3107 / www.bignosekates.info
BIRD CAGE THEATER:
(May/2018 – Permission required and granted by Billy Hunley/Bird Cage Theater to use my own photography on my own website)
The famous Bird Cage Theater is located at the corner of Allen and 6th Street and houses some of the most historic and most interesting items in Tombstone! While a free pre-show is available in the lobby of the theater, with several interesting artifacts on display including several bullet holes dating back to the 1880’s, by all means, pay the $12 bucks to see what lies beyond. That is where you’ll find the good stuff!
Once you fork over your cash you are escorted to enter the rest of the building through a curtain. You immediately find yourself in the auditorium of the theater where patrons enjoyed shows and theater while drinking, played games of chance and purchased the services of the “soiled doves” who served drinks, among other things. Ahem. The girls escorted their customers to “cribs” located on the second floor overlooking the theater and stage.
The Bird Cage opened in 1881 and did not close until 1889 when the mines dried up. And when I say “did not close”, I mean it was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This grand piano (below) was hauled to the theater by mule train and has been in this exact same spot since 1881! It was used for all the musicals and theater productions performed during that time. Remember the raucous scene from the movie “Tombstone” when the outlaws shot guns inside the theater during the performance? The scene was supposed to have been in this famous venue.
Faro was a game of chance that was popular and played during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in North America. Not related to poker, it was an easy, fast-action game with better odds than most other games of chance. It is played with one deck of cards and winning or losing occurs when cards are turned up by the dealer/banker and match cards already exposed. This Faro table is the actual table where Doc Holliday played and dealt Faro.
Not only did the working girls entertain gentlemen in their cribs in the theater itself, but there were two private rooms in the basement for the more popular girls. The room below belonged to Sarah Josephine Marcus also known as “Shady Sadie”. She was portrayed by actress Dana Delany in the motion picture “Tombstone”, however, there was no indication in the movie that she was a prostitute. She entertained Wyatt Earp in this very room and later became his third wife, known as Josephine, and they were married for 47 years. Contact Info: 535 East Allen St., Tombstone, AZ 85638 / 520 457-3421 / www.tombstonebirdcage.com
After having a rootin’ tootin’ good time in Tombstone – you have to make one last stop at the Boothill Graveyard. You actually pass the graveyard as you are coming into town but I like to leave it for the end of my visit. It costs $3 and that gains you entrance to the cemetery as well as scores you a guidebook that describes who is buried where and just exactly how several of the deceased ended up there.
The area was laid out as a burial plot in 1878 and was originally called the Tombstone Cemetery. It was used as the burial place for the town’s first pioneers until around 1884 when the community cemetery was opened in town and it was then renamed Boot Hill.
The famous headstone for Lester Moore of “four slugs with a .44” fame can be found here, as well as the graves of numerous others who died of various maladies including meningitis, pneumonia, Indian attacks, and of course, “hangin’s”.
Also buried here are the notorious outlaws Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers, Tom and Frank, who were murdered on the streets of Tombstone at the O.K. Corral in the bloody battle with the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday.
A visit to the Boothill Graveyard is the perfect way to wrap up a day in Tombstone and pay those last respects to the citizens that helped tame this real-deal wild west area of the U.S.A. Contact Info: 408 AZ-80, Tombstone, AZ 85638 / 520 457-2540 / www.tombstoneboothillgiftshop.com
So if you find yourself in southern Arizona – be sure and make a detour to Tombstone. There is truly something to please everyone from history to shopping to good old-fashioned fun. Ya’ll come back now, ya hear?
Click HERE to check out some travel scrapbook pages featuring Tombstone, Arizona.
Have YOU ever visited Tombstone, Arizona? What is your favorite thing to do while in town? Let us know in the comments below!