As a former frontier mining camp, Tombstone, Arizona has faced its share of threats and calamities over the years, earning it a reputation as “the town too tough to die.” Now the southwestern community is dealing with an official warning from the U.S. National Park Service, which says Tombstone could lose its designation as a National Historic Landmark if it does not depict its past in a more accurate way.
Tombstone is best known as the scene of the 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, where Wyatt Earp, his brothers and their friend Doc Holliday had a fatal shootout with a group of cowboys. Each year, some half a million visitors from around the world come to Tombstone to tour its historic downtown of saloons and stagecoaches, pay their respects to fallen frontiersmen at the Boothill Graveyard, and see dramatic reenactments of Old West history.
But are visitors getting a completely accurate picture of Tombstone’s colorful past? The National Park Service has cited numerous violations of historical authenticity in Tombstone, including structures that have fake building materials or bear dates suggesting they are older than they really are.
James Garrison, Arizona’s State Historic Preservation Officer, says this is not the first time officials have demanded that Tombstone correct violations. But he believes there is a bigger issue in the town as well. Tombstone became a historic landmark as an example of a silver mining town, and it has important physical remains built after the 1881 gunfight.
“To the tourists, and I think the community leaders, and a lot of the people who gain a livelihood in Tombstone, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is the pinnacle event that draws people to Tombstone, and so there’s some desire to restore the town to the point of the gunfight. But at the same time they have a responsibility to preserve the tangible remains of their entire history.”
But historians and preservationists have a powerful myth to contend with in the form of Hollywood movies like “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” and “Tombstone.” Hollis Cook, a retired superintendent for the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park, says movies have made the town synonymous with the story of Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral. “As a historian I would argue that the gunfight itself is really not very important historically at all. Nobody came West because of the gunfight? nobody didn’t come West because of the gunfight. But because of Hollywood, it’s become very important culturally, and we use it to define ourselves.”
Hollis Cook argues that there is plenty of drama to be found in the story of silver prospector Ed Schieffelin, who started a mining camp at the Tombstone site in 1877. “Someone told him all you’ll ever find over there will be your tombstone, hence the name of the town. And over a period of time millions in 1880 dollars were taken out of the hill over here, and it would amount to billions in today’s money. That’s really the importance to history of Tombstone.”
A different perspective comes from Robert Love, whose family has owned the O.K. Corral site since 1963. Even if the gunfight was not a turning point in western history, Mr. Love calls the O.K. Corral saga an “archetype” of bigger themes in America’s frontier past. “On the one hand you had the Earps. They were Republicans. They represented big business. On the other hand you had the cowboys. They were ranchers. They were Democrats. The cowboys controlled the territory around the town politically, but businesses from the East were trying to come in and make the town a place where capitalism could flourish. And these two quite different philosophies met at the O.K. Corral.”
Mr. Love says Tombstone is also battling dilemmas faced by other historic American towns. “Competing against I-pods and computer games has become very difficult. You also have to recall that in the 1950s, when Tombstone had its rebirth, half the television programs on primetime were (about) cowboys. Today there are almost no cowboy movies around. And so the town has to try to maintain its history and yet offer things to a younger generation.”
Even tourists disagree as to whether Tombstone is living up to its fabled past. Hermann, who comes from Germany, says this is his second visit to the town, and he’s enthusiastic. “This is the original Old West town. It’s not the town that’s built for show.”
But Paul McKissack, of Williamsburg, Virginia, complains he finds Tombstone too commercial. “Seeing the streets paved over rather than in dirt, it just gives me the reaction of another tourist trap.”
There is an added factor in the Tombstone debate, says State Preservation Officer James Garrison, and that is the needs of the local population. Some 1700 people live in Tombstone, and their numbers are growing. “How do you add to the ambience of the town,” asks Mr. Garrison, “without creating this unauthentic place? The actual amenities for the local resident are rather few in the historic commercial area. It’s almost totally turned over to tourism, and that’s part of the issue. Do they still have a real town, or has it become that proverbial Disneyland or Wild West showcase?”
Tombstone has until 2007 to comply with National Park Service demands and retain its historic landmark status. As it deals with those demands this year, it will also celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral — making it a time to consider the competing claims of 19th century history and a 21st century community.