- Historic Sites
Arizona’s spare, seemingly depopulated landscape has in fact been teeming with travelers for four centuries
November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
But the California gold rush was on, and few people had any intention of stopping off in Tucson as they traveled westward. It was not until the 1880s, when large deposits of silver and copper ore were discovered in the Mule Mountains southeast of Tucson, that the railroads really began to make a significant impact on the area. With its theaters, dance halls, and saloons, Tombstone is the most colorful mining town that the railroads nourished. The former seat of Cochise County and known as “The Town Too Tough to Die,” Tombstone is the site of both Boothill cemetery and the famous gunfight that took place on October 26, 1881, when Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil Earp and “Doc” Holliday shot it out with the band of cowboys at the O.K. Corral.
The city had been founded just four years earlier by the great prospector Ed Schieffelin, who discovered silver in the surrounding hills. For the rest of the century Tombstone continued to thrive until underground flooding closed the mines.
When Tom Hunt and I drove through, we saw only a pale version of what once had clearly been the epitome of a Wild West town. Nowadays Tombstone devotes itself wholly to selling trinkets and assorted Western paraphernalia, but many of the buildings are genuine, and the saloons still operate. Standing outside the offices of the Tombstone Epitaph , the oldest continuously published newspaper in Arizona, Tom, who used to work as a cowboy in these parts back in the 1940s, pointed to a large oak with a sturdy-looking branch that jutted out at a right angle. “See that tree there? That’s where they used to hang people.”
Continuing south along state highway 80, you will come to Bisbee, once known as “The Queen of the Copper Camps.” In 1910 Bisbee boasted a population of around twenty thousand and had more than forty saloons and sporting houses in its notorious tenderloin, Brewery Gulch—"the hottest spot between El Paso and San Francisco.” The boom was short-lived; the fall in copper prices that began just before World War I and continued for decades eventually led to all the mines shutting down. Nevertheless, Bisbee is a charming place to visit, still looking like a prosperous turn-of-the-century city, and signs of its glory days remain in the lovingly preserved brick buildings that attest to its former status as the largest city in Arizona Territory.
One of the most awesome sights in Bisbee, however, is just outside town. The Lavender Pit Mine, nine hundred feet deep, more than a mile long, and covering more than a hundred and fifty acres, was one of the largest open-pit mines in the world before it closed in 1974. It is an amazing thing to see—not because it is beautiful in any way but because it is symbolic of the lengths that the people of this part of the country will go in order to try to preserve their way of life. Tom Hunt even spent three years here in the 1950s working as a diesel mechanic—"I got tired of scratching a poor man’s ass,” he says—and he stands next to me as we look out over the rim of this monstrous hole in the ground.
There was something sad about seeing one of the last of the cowboys and the last of the mines together at the same time and knowing that there won’t be any more where they came from. Tom said nothing; he just spat tobacco juice into the void before we got back into his truck and drove off.