A Traveler in Tombstone
from "Across Arizona" by William H. Bishop
Harper's Magazine, March 1883

Tombstone is the very latest and liveliest of those mushroom civilizations in unlikely places which have been so often seen to gather helter-skelter around a find of the precious metals. They live at a headlong pace while they go; draw around them wild and lawless spirits; confer great fortunes here, the suicide's grave or that of the victim of violence there. A school of literature, in Bret Harte and his followers, has arisen to celebrate their extraordinary doings. And with the rapid advance of population and conventional ideas they must shortly disappear from sight as absolutely as the dodo of tradition. While things go well with them, prices of commodities are hardly considered. Nobody haggles. The most expensive is that which is most wanted.

"Diamonds--two hundred-dollar watches and chains--Lord! we couldn't hand 'em out fast enough," says an ex-jeweler, describing his experience at one of these camps in its halcyon days.

"Champagne wasn't good enough for me then," says a seedy customer, recalling his doings after his discovery and sale of a rich mine, and sighing for a repetition of the event, not to make provision for his old age, but that he may have one more such glorious spree before he dies.

Sometimes this rush of life departs even more quickly than it came. One fine day the lead is exhausted; there is no more treasure in the mine; away fly the heterogeneous elements; and the town, be it never so well built, is left vacant and desolate as Tadmor of the Wilderness. In a Nevada mining town, once having some thousands of inhabitants, Indians are living in abandoned rows of good brick houses, which they have adapted to their purposes as far as possible by knocking out the doors and windows and punching holes in the roofs.

map of southeast Arizona, 1882

This map shows the route of the Southern Pacific Railroad through Southern Arizona (eastern section). Visitors to Tombstone had to travel by stagecoach from the Benson railroad station.

A six-horse Concord coach carried us, not too speedily, over the twenty-five miles of dusty road to Tombstone. The coach was called the Grand Central, after a prosperous mine. A rival line was the Sandy Bob, from its proprietor, who preferred to be thus known, instead of by a conventional family name, such as might be found in a directory. We should certainly have taken the Sandy Bob, for its greater suggestiveness, in the line of the Bret Harte romances, except that it was just coming down when we wanted to go up, and coming up when we were going down. However, our own proved to have a good deal of suggestiveness too. A guard got up with a Winchester rifle, and posted himself by the Wells Fargo Express box. The driver began to relate robber stories. This stage had been stopped and gone through twice within the past six months. The experience was enlivened on one occasion by a runaway and turnover, and on the other by the shooting and killing of the driver. Of this last feature his successor spoke with a disgust not unnatural. He would have the line drawn at drivers. He respected a person who took to the road and robbed those who could afford it. At least he considered it more honorable than borrowing money of a friend which you knew you could never repay, or gobbling up the earnings of the poor, received on deposit, like a certain large firm lately suspended in Pima County. But as to shooting a driver, even in mistake for somebody else, he had no words to express his sense of the meanness of it.

He threw stones at his horses, as is done in Mexico, that is, at the leaders, which were beyond the reach of his long lash. A single stone was made to carom, such was his skill, and served for both. Long teams of mules or of Texas steers, sixteen to a team, drawing ore wagons--three usually tackled together--were strung interminably along the road. The Mexican-looking drivers trudged beside them in the chain-deep yellow dust, cracking huge black-snakes [whips] at the animals.

Ore wagons going to Contention City

Mesquite bushes and a long grass dried to hay--said not to be as good as it looked--covered portions of the surface; the rest was stony and bare. We rode for a certain distance beside the branch railroad in course of construction between Benson and Tombstone. A series of lateral valleys along the tributaries branching from the Gila, both north and south, as the Santa Cruz, the Salt River, the San Carlos, San Pedro, and San Simon not only afford excellent stock ranges, and promise of a flourishing agriculture in time, but easy routes for tributary railways. They have begun already to be utilized, as the San Pedro for the Southern Pacific branch mentioned, and the Santa Cruz for the Arizona Southern, from the center of the Territory at Florence, on the Atlantic and Pacific, to connect with the Mexican system at Calabasas. The transcontinental road (or roads, when the Atlantic and Pacific shall be built) will draw trade through these tributary valleys as the Gila draws its waters, and particularly from the northern States of Mexico, where mining enterprise, in which Americans play conspicuous part, is making great headway.

The route began to be up-hill. We changed horses and lunched at Contention City. One naturally expected a certain belligerency of such a place, but none appeared on the surface during our stay. There were plenty of saloons: the Dew-drop, the Head-light, and the like and at the door of one of them a Spanish senorita smoked her cigarette and showed her white teeth.

Contention City was the seat of stamp mills for crushing ore brought to it from Tombstone, the latter place being without a water-power, though the defect has probably since been remedied. The stamps are rows of heavy beams dropping upon the mineral, on the mortar and pestle plan, with a continuous dull roar, by night as well as by day. The route grew steeper yet. On the few wayside fences were painted such announcements as, "Go To Bangley and Schlagensteins. They Are The Bosses, You Bet." Then over the edge of bare hills appeared the outline of Tombstone itself.

A large circular watertank loomed up the most conspicuous object in front, recalling (except for being painted with a mammoth advertisement) one of the chain of bold round forts crowning the heights above Verona.

At the beginning of the year 1878 there was not so much as a tent at Tombstone. Ed Schieffelin and brother started thither prospecting. It was considered to be an adventure full of dangers. At the Santa Rita silver mines, in the Santa Cruz valley, for instance, by no means so far away, three superintendents had been murdered by Indians in rapid succession. Friends therefore said, "Better take your coffin with you, Ed; you will find your tombstone and nothing else." But Ed Schieffelen--a young man yet, who has not discarded a picturesque way of dressing of which he was fond, nor greatly altered his habits otherwise--found instead the Tough Nut and Contention mines, made a great fortune out of them and was so pleased with the difference between what had really happened and the prediction that he conferred the name of Tombstone upon the place itself. One of the two well-printed and very creditable daily papers now existing has assumed the correspondingly dismal title of The Epitaph. The unreliability of epitaphs, if the remark may be safely ventured at this distance, is proverbial.

Nevertheless, they may occasionally tell the truth; and from appearances it would seem that this was one of those occasions and that almost any laudation of its subject by this particular Epitaph was justifiable. The small city, two years old at the date of this journey, had attained to a population of 2000, and a property valuation, apart from the mines, of $1,050,980. A desirable lot of 30 by 80 feet, on Allen Street, between Fourth and Sixth--such was the business-like nomenclature used already in this settlement of yesterday--was worth $6000. A shanty that cost $50 to build rented for $15 a month. A nucleus of many blocks at the center consisted of substantial, large-sized buildings, hotels, banks, Schieffelin Hall, for meetings and amusements, and stores stocked with goods of more than the average excellence for even older towns.

The mining claims run under the city itself. From the roof of the Grand Hotel you looked down at the shafts, the hoist works, and heaps of extracted ore of the Vizina, the Gilded Age (close by the Palace Lodging-House), the Mountain Maid, and other mines opening strangely in the very midst of the buildings. This circumstance has given rise to disputes of ownership, so that whoever would be safe purchases all the conflicting titles both above ground and below. On a commanding hill close by, to the southward, were the Tough Nut and Contention, with above them many others discovered later. The larger mines have extensive buildings of wood, painted Indian red, with handsome draughting and assay rooms within, and regularly educated scientists, ex-college professors and the like, in charge. The lesser are fain to put up in the beginning with common sheds and poorer appliances of every kind. About them all lie heaps of a blackish material, resembling inferior coal mixed with slate, which is the silver ore in its native condition. A laborer above-ground earned $3.50, and below ground $4, for a shift of eight hours work; and the work went on night and day, Sundays and all.

The outskirts consisted still of huts and tents. A burly miner could be seen stretched upon his cot in his windowless cabin barely large enough to contain it. There were small tents provided with wooden doors and adobe chimneys. New as it was, the business portion of the place had been swept out of existence at one time. A devastating fire had originated from a characteristic incident: the explosion of a whiskey barrel at the Oriental Saloon. But in fourteen days all had been rebuilt much better than before. I took the pains to remark the number of establishments in a single short block of Allen Street at which intoxicating beverages could be had. There were the bar-rooms of two principal hotels, the Eagle Brewery, Cancan Chop-House, French Rotisserie, Alhambra, Maison Dore, City of Paris, Brown's Saloon, Fashion Saloon, Miners' Home, Kelly's Wine-House, the Grotto, the Tivoli, and two saloons besides apparently unnamed. At all these places gambling goes on without let or hindrance. The absence of savings-banks or of other opportunities for depositing money in these wild new communities, and the consequent temptation of having it always under the eye, no doubt has something to do with the general passion for gambling.

From the hygienic point of view, whiskey and cold lead are mentioned as the leading diseases at Tombstone. What with the leisure that seems to prevail, the constant drinking and gambling at the saloons, and the universal practice of carrying deadly weapons, there is but one source of astonishment, and that is that the cold lead disease should claim so few victims. Casualties are very infrequent considering the amount of vaporish talk indulged in, and the imminent risks that are constantly run; and the small cemetery over toward Contention Hill is still comparatively virgin ground.

A further element, in addition to the silver mines, adds to the exceptional liveliness of Tombstone. It has attained a certain fame already for the doings of its "Cow-boys." The term cow-boys was at first applied to persons engaged in the cattle business indiscriminately, but while still including the honest sort, has been narrowed down so as to mean particularly a class who have become stealers of cattle, at first over the Mexican frontier, then at home, and terrorists generally in their day and generation. Exceptional desperadoes of this class, such as Billy the Kid, Curly Bill, and Russian George, have been scourges of whole districts in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, and have had their memories embalmed in yellow-covered literature. I bought on the train a crimson pamphlet purporting to contain an account of the exploits of Billy the Kid. He had committed a score at least of horrid murders.

"So many cities have claimed the honor of giving him birth," my pamphlet began, "that it is difficult to locate with any accuracy the locality where he passed his youth."

It appeared, however, to have been New York, and it was on the Bowery that his mates "learned to love him for his daring and prowess, and delighted to refer to him as Billy the Kid." This promising life was cut off at the age of twenty-two. Curly Bill was also young, and so was Man-killer Johnson. I remarked upon this peculiarity of their youth to a philosophic new acquaintance of the region.

"Yes," said he, "they don't live to be very old; that's so."

The recipe for long life for persons of an active habit in this country, it appears, is to be very quick and to get the drop on an antagonist, that is to say, to be ready to shoot first. It is not the custom to shoot unless it is likely that this can be done, but even to put up with some ignominious abuse, and wait for another opportunity.

The cow-boys frequenting Tombstone at this time were generally from ranches in the San Pedro and San Simon valleys. There were said to be strongholds in the San Simon Valley for concealing stolen cattle, until rebranded and prepared for market, where no officer of the law ever ventured. The running off of stock from Mexico was possibly looked upon only as a more dashing form of smuggling, although it was marked by frequent tragedies on both sides. Not to fix upon all the wickedness of the few, we no doubt saw on Tombstone streets plenty of cow-boys of the legitimate sort, whose only faults were an occasional boisterousness and a too-free throwing about of their money. There appeared to be something of a standing feud between the miners and the cow-boys. An irregular faction of town cow-boys besides was organized against the country cow-boys.

The leading cattlemen had a Southern cut and accent, and were apt to have hailed from Missouri or Texas. Some few appeared in full suits of broadcloth. The wide felt sombrero was invariably worn. The landlord of the hotel described them as "perfect gentlemen, some good at the bar for $20 and $25 a day."

The great object in life of various factions, or of individuals who from time to time arise in search of a brilliant notoriety, is to "run the town." This seems to consist largely of the privilege of blustering the loudest in the saloons, whooping (with an occasional pistol-shot or two, if thought good) in the streets, and a moderate security from arrest for casual doings that might bring them under the cognizance of the law. The privilege is secured by inspiring in all who might be disposed to object a salutary dread of their prowess.

This is necessarily a very insecure domination. New aspirants and rebels against it would be continually piqued into showing themselves whenever it seemed attained. Our visit happened to be timed upon the heels of a conflict making the most tragic page yet written in the annals of Tombstone. Official opinions were evenly divided about it, the sheriff extending his sympathy to one party, the city marshal, who was, in fact, its leader, to the other. City Marshal Earp, with his two brothers, and one Doc Holliday, a gambler, came down the street armed with rifles and opened fire on the two Clanton brothers and the two McLowry brothers. The latter party had been practically disarmed by the sheriff, who had feared such a meeting, and meant to disarm the others as well. Three of them fell, and died on the spot. Ike Clanton alone escaped. The slayers were imprisoned, but released on bail. The Grand Jury was now in session, and hearing the evidence in the case. It was rumored that the town party, for such were the Earps, would be able to command sufficient influence to go free of indictment. The country cow-boys, on the other hand, were flocking into town, and on one quiet Sunday in particular things wore an ominous look. It was said that should justice fail to be done, the revengeful, resolute-looking men conferring together darkly at the edges of the sidewalk would attempt to take the matter into their own hands.

The night journey on the return to Benson by the stage was whiled away with shooting stories. We heard especially of the doings of the late Brazelton of Tucson--a bugaboo indeed, as I saw his photograph presently, taken in his mask and general paraphernalia after death. He robbed stages unaided for years while apparently working quietly all the time as a hostler in a corral, and was finally tracked through some peculiar mark of the horse he rode. One of the narrators had himself just recovered sufficiently from wounds received in a fight with a Mexican--whom he had killed--over cards at Bisbee to be able, with the stimulus of frequent doses of morphine, to resume his journey toward New Mexico, where his home was. The train men at Benson were found chary of carrying the usual lanterns about the depot yard, a habit having arisen with the cow-boys of trying to snuff them out with revolvers from a distance.

When Bishop passed through Tucson on his way back to Los Angeles, he made this comparison between Tombstone and Tucson:

A certain kind of "life" prevails here as at Tombstone. Roulette, faro, and the other games of chance are played openly in a large way in the leading saloons, while the poor Mexicans gamble for small stakes at their own fondas under the aegis of some wretched portrait of Hidalgo or General Zaragoza, the hero of Puebla. There is lacking, however, the choleric, dangerous air of Tombstone. People make way for you to pass, and are not exclusively preoccupied with looking for somebody to tread on the tails of their coats.

This is an excerpt from a longer article entitled "Across Arizona," which appeared in Harper's Magazine in March 1883. The complete article can be downloaded as an e-book. To find more e-books on Arizona history click here.

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