Saturday, October 1

Gunfight at the OK Corral

Tombstone, Arizona; they call it “the town too tough to die”. It’s also one of the best preserved towns in the midst of what once was the American Wild West. The town’s original 1880’s buildings have been lovingly maintained. The result is a streetscape that wouldn’t be out of place in a classic Western movie. The main street is lined by a shaded boardwalk protecting the entrance to saloons, brothels and stores. However, unlike a Disney stage-prop set, the buildings aren’t quite as spotless and exhibits are often worn and dusty.

Tombstone is also home to the OK Corral, the site of an infamous gunfight long since immortalized in more than one movie. On October 26, 1881, in a six-metre wide lot behind the Corral three cowboys faced down four rival townsmen. In less than a minute, 30 shots were fired, leaving three cowboys dead and two other seriously wounded.

Today, visitors can watch an amusing reenactment of the gunfight twice a day, staged in a simple amphitheatre alongside the original Corral. Alternatively, you can push a button at the actual gunfight site and watch some clumsy animatron robots crudely reenact the fatal scene. It’s probably the only truly chintzy tourist gimmick in town.

We spent 1.5 days exploring the township, learning all there was to know about the gunfight and host of other excentric characters that gave the town its enduring reputation. Highlights included the Bird Cage Theatre where an elevated row of opera boxes along its opposing walls were used by prostitutes to ply their trade rather than well-heeled theatre-goers. In fact, we discovered that many of the well-heeled local were the prostitutes. It seems that the wives of many prominent locals, including the sheriff, were prostitutes at one time or another.

Several horse-driven stagecoach tours also operate around the town. They’re undoubtedly a bit of a gimmick as a horse cannot travel far in 15 minutes at a leisurely pace. However, this does give the drive plenty of time to share all manner of amusing anecdotes about the town and its history. The odd stray bullet hole was also pointed out along the way.

I was fascinated to learn that that much of Tombstone’s colourful history took place over a surprisingly brief period. The town was founded in 1879; near a recently discovered silver mine. This made it one of the West’s last frontier towns. Within a year the town was the fastest growing city between St Louis and San Francisco. In fact, its population grew from less than 100 people to more than 14,000 in less than seven years.

The mines struck water in the 1880s and were kept open by a pump operating 24-hours a day. In 1886 the main pump house caught fire, seriously damaging its pump. The mines flooded and the cost of repair was deemed excessive. Mining in the area rapidly declined and the town began to falter. By 1990, less than 700 people remained. However, savvy locals turned to tourism in a bid to save the town. Today, Tombstone attracts almost half a million visitors annually.

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