Lily Absinthe- Musings from Tombstone

Tombstone panorama, 1909 during the Second Boom.

Tombstone panorama, 1909 during the Second Boom.

It’s been an exciting five days here in Tombstone and the fact that we have not been here since New Year’s makes it even more so. We have had a second home in Tombstone for the past 12 years and while we have seen many people come and go, it never seems to grow old or tired and there’s always something exciting going on.

As many of you may know, back in 2003 we bought a small house here that was originally built in 1904 and we have spend the past 12 years renovating it a bit at a time. Restoring a vintage house can be challenging but we accepted the challenge. 🙂 Sometimes the renovations are planned for and at other times, they are not; the most recent example of having to replace our stove since it was leaking natural gas was now a major hazard (not to worry, everything is all right now).

When most people hear of the town of Tombstone, they naturally think of the Earps and the Gunfight at the OK Corral with visions of gunslingers clad either in black or wearing red sashes walking down Allen Street to their ultimate “date with destiny”. Of course the reality was, and is, much different but to this day, Tombstone has been defined by a 30-second gunfight. To some, Tombstone is the epitome of everything Old West and harkens back to a day when life was more raw and seemingly free of the restrictions of 21st Century America. To others, Tombstone symbolizes an out-of-control “Wild West” awash with freely available firearms and little or no law and order.

Gunfight at the OK Corral from the movie Tombstone (1993).

Gunfight at the OK Corral from the movie Tombstone (1993).

There are some elements of truth to both these interpretations BUT they are interpretations that reflect our own modern 21st Century prejudices more than anything else. Setting aside all of this, let’s consider the following.

Tombstone was a town established as a byproduct of a growing mining industry, an industry based principally on the extraction of silver and gold at first and later more mundane elements such as manganese and lead. As such, the town catered to the needs of the mining industry and the miners themselves. All manner of businesses opened in town ranging from Assayers to attorneys to handle the legalities of mining operations to merchants supplying food, drink, clothing, and tools. And naturally there were those providing for the miners in the off-hours to include saloons, theaters, gambling establishments, and brothels. In short, it was the textbook boomtown.

Unissued Certificate

Unissued Certificate

Mining Activity in Tombstone

Mining Activity in Tombstone

However, as typical in the case of most boomtowns, the initial excitement dies down, mines begin to play out, the expenses of operating mines begin to outweigh the profits, etc. and the town began to decline in the late 1880s. Most significantly, as the mines bored further and further down, eventually they began to experience seepage from the local water table to the point where it was interfering with extracting the silver. The technology of the time was limited and expensive and thus more capital was required to keep the mines going, something that was not available in all cases.

Walking beam pump- One of many massive pumps brought in at great expense to pump water out of the mine shafts.

Walking beam pump- One of many massive pumps brought in at great expense to pump water out of the mine shafts.

Finally, several major accidents combined with a decline in silver prices forced a major cutback in mining operations and soon many people left the area looking for opportunities elsewhere. By the 1890s, the town was in decline.

Tombstone, 1891

Tombstone, 1891

The above is just a very cursory history of the town of Tombstone but it does highlight one point that’s often missed: the town was a byproduct of the developing mining industry, not the other way around. Often in Westerns, whether in film or books, towns just seem to exist in all manner of illogical locations. Towns just don’t spontaneously pop up anywhere, there has to be a reason and that reason is due to some sort of economic activity and often times combined with geography and Tombstone is no exception to this. In short, the town needs a raison d’etre or reason to exist.

While gunfights and all of the associated secondary activities such as saloons, gambling, and “soiled doves” provide color and excitement and bring in the tourists, it can give a distorted view of Tombstone and lead people to think that Tombstone is some sort of Old West Disneyland. It is not. Tombstone was, and still is, a functioning real town and not everyone who lives there is enamored about putting on a “show” for tourists.

Finally, it must be noted that much of Tombstone’s local economy is based on tourism and it’s an important element in the town. However, many of its inhabitants work in Sierra Vista, Bisbee, or Benson and as such Tombstone also functions as a bedroom community.

So for us, Tombstone is more than gunfights, saloons, gambling and soiled doves. While this aspect of the West can be interesting in its own right, it’s not the whole story. To us, the everyday lives of ordinary people and their daily lives to be far more compelling and this is reflected in our interest in dress/costume (the term “costume” is used here to indicate any form of clothing that was worn in previous historical periods).

Fashion Plate, 1881 from the Revue de La Mode.

Fashion Plate, 1881 from the Revue de La Mode. Too fancy for a place like Tombstone? Not so, with the money flowing in from mining, many people had money to spend and they spent it freely (so long as the boom lasted).

We urge everyone who comes to visit Tombstone to look a bit under the surface to see the richness of both Tombstone’s and Arizona’s history. There’s a lot there and we’re constantly discovering new things. We hope to see you in town in the near future! 🙂


One thought on “Lily Absinthe- Musings from Tombstone

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