In 1877, the City of Tombstone was founded by Ed Schieffelin. At the time, there was a scouting voyage in Tombstone against the Chiricahua (chir-i-cow-uh) Apaches. Ed was part of this mission and was staying at a place called Camp Huachuca (wa-chu-ka) . During his stay, he would leave the camp to look for rocks within the wilderness despite the fact that fellow soldiers at his camp warned him not to.
The soldiers told him that he wouldn’t find stones out in the wilderness and would only eventually find his own tombstone. Fortunately, for Ed, he did not find his tombstone, but he did find something: silver.
Taking the advice his fellow soldiers gave him, his very first mine was named The Tombstone.
Word quickly spread about his silver strike. It wasn’t long before homesteaders, cowboys, speculators, prospectors, lawyers, business people and gunmen headed to the area. Known as Goose Flats back then, a town site was situated near the mines in 1879 and was named Tombstone due to the first claim of silver mining by Ed Schiefflelin.
The popular in Tombstone increased to approximately 7,500 by the mid-1880s. However, this figure only consisted of the white males over the age of 21 that were registered vote. The figure that consists of women, children and other ethnicities, the population was at least 15,000 and possibly as much as 20,000. Tombstone was considered to be between San Francisco and St. Louis as the fastest populating city. Tombstone was home to more than 100 saloons, a multitude of eateries, a huge red-light district, a larger popular of Chinese, newspapers, churches, schools, and one of the original Arizona community swimming pools, which is still being used today.
The town also housed a few theaters, with the most prominent of those theaters being the Bird Cage Theatre as well as Schieffelin Hall. The Bird Cage Theatre was more than just a theater and was a gambling hall, saloon as well as a brothel. They saw that any woman with self-respect wouldn’t step foot inside the Bird Cage Theatre. It operated 24/7/265 and opened in 1881 on Christmas and closed in 1889. The New York Times said that this theater was the wickedest and wildest night spot between the Barbary Coast and Basin Street, which isn’t far from the truth since 140 alleged bullet holes can still be seen in the ceiling and the walls. So, where did the name come from? Reportedly, the Bird Café featured compartments, similar to that of a cage, that hung from the ceiling. “Ladies of the evening” kept their customer entertained in these suspended cages. Legend says that this was the muse for a song, “She’s only a bird in a gilded cage,” one of the most popular songs in the early 1900s.
On December 25, 1881, William “Billy” Hutchinson and his wife Lottie opened the Bird Cage Theatre. It got its name from the 14 boxes that were referred to as “cages”. These cages are located on the second story balconies on both sides of the main hall. Each box had drapes that could be drawn while the prostitutes amused their cliental. Also found in the main hall is a stage where live performances were held and below was an orchestra pit.
Many famous and notorious legends frequented the Bird Cage. Performers such as Lillian Russell, Lotta Crabtree, and Eddie Foy Sr. have performed on the stage along with Fatima, the belly dancer. Others like the Clantons, Earps, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday and even Pete Spence, laid down many silver coins for a shot of whiskey. The basement was set up as a poker room and where the story is told that the longest-running poker game in history was played there. This game was played 24 hours, and apparently lasted eight years, five months, three days, with over 10 million dollars exchanging hands. Some of the participants were Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Diamond Jim Brady, and George Hearst, with the house getting 10 percent of the profits. The game ended when the ground water seeped into the mines, flooding many of the buildings. In 1889 the town went bust, along with the Bird Cage Theatre and the building had to be closed.
In 1934, the Bird Cage Theatre’s new owners opened the place back up for show. They found everything in the building the exact way it was left, even the poker table. Today the Bird Cage stands as a tourist attraction and a visual look into its colorful past. With its violent history, there is no short supply of ghostly activity reported there. Several ghost hunting teams such as Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures and Ghost Lab have investigated the place with incredible results.
“Respectable” individuals in the town went to Schieffelin Hall for entertainment. In June of 1881, the Schieffelin Hall was opened and built by Al, the brother of Ed Schieffelin.
It was used as more than a theater, as it was also a recital hall as well as a meeting venue for citizens of Tombstone. In the Southwest U.S., it is this building that is considered the largest adobe structure standing.
Wyatt and Morgan Earp were both at a performance at the Schieffelin Hall when Morgan was shot dead by the bullet of an assassin. This building is still used today by civic groups and city government.
On June 22, 1881 there was two large fires that went through the city. Reportedly, one of the fires was at the Arcade Saloon and began when a whiskey barrel was ignited by a cigar. The fire, which occurred in June of 1881, destroyed more than 60 downtown businesses. The town was able to rebuild and continue to grow.
However, just short of a year later on May 26, 1882, Tombstone's second great fire started in the restroom of the Tivoli Saloon, on the south side of Allen Street, between Fourth and Fifth. The damages from this great blaze were estimated at $500,000; almost three times the amount of the first fire on June 22, 1881.
Downtown Tombstone after 1882 fire destroyed the town's business corridor for the second time in two years.
Boothill Graveyard was also a huge part of Tombstone. Founded in 1879, Boothill Graveyard was used until the new cemetery – New Tombstone City Cemetery – opened in 1884. After the new cemetery opened and began being used, Boothill Graveyard was called “The Old Cemetery.” The newer cemetery is still being used today. Stories say that Boothill received its name from the fact that the individuals there had died unexpectedly or violently and were buried boots intact. However, Boothill was in fact named after the pioneer cemetery in Dodge City hopefully helping tourism in the late 1920s. Many individuals from Tombstone are in this cemetery, including victims from a shootout that took place in 1881 between the Cowboys and Earps on Fremont Street. For years, though, the cemetery was neglected. It was taken over by the desert and gravestones were removed by vandals. Some began to clean up The Old Cemetery in the 1920s and doing research so that the grave markers could be properly replaced.
The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is the most famous Tombstone event, although it happened in a Fremont Street vacant lot and not the O.K. Corral. The event took place on October 26, 1881 when the Cowboys had a bit of a run-in with a few Earps – Morgan, Virgil and Wyatt. Not even 30 seconds and about 30 gun shots later, Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton were dead. For many, it is believed that it this sole event that has kept the city of Tombstone alive.
The following year, for about $50,000, the Cochise County Courthouse was constructed providing a number of offices for the treasurer, recorder, country sheriff and the board of supervisors. It even housed a jail and served as a symbol of both stability and law at a very disorderly time in Tombstone. Tombstone remained the home for the country until 1929, when voters decided to move it to the copper mining town of Bisbee, approximately 30 miles away. In 1931, the courthouse said goodbye to the final county office. The Museum almost closed in 2012 due to budget cuts from Governor Jan Brewer, but the Tombstone Chamber of Commerce was able to meet the demands of the state so that the museum could remain operational.
Mineshafts began to be dug deeper in order to get to the valuable ore. The mines flooded when the water table was struck at 520 feet. For several years, they were able to pump the water out of the mines, but eventually become too expensive. The mining ultimately began to slow down and people began to leave the historic town of Tombstone, although it wasn’t before $37 million worth of ore had been obtained from the local mines. Records show that the population of Tombstone was about 150 people by the early 1930s.
Allen Street, Tombstone AZ 1929
Today, 1600+ residents call the city of Tombstone home. The climate is wonderful thanks to the Cochise County’s high desert. Each one of these year-round residents believe in heritage and history preservation of their authentic Wild West Town.
Come see for yourself what makes Tombstone
The Town too Tough to Die!