The Old West Lives: Tourism’s Glory Days In Tombstone, Arizona


They ride high in the saddle in Tombstone. Cause a man’s gotta do, what a man’s gotta do. And what most men and a lot of the women in this historic Wild West town gotta do is dress up like cowboys, gunslingers, dancehall girls and regular town folk and party like it’s 1889.

Tombstone is a dot on the map of southern Arizona, about 40 kilometres off the 1-10 that runs through a sun-baked landscape that anybody who has ever watched a Hollywood cowboy movie would instantly recognise.

It’s a hot, dry, inhospitable landscape. You don’t come across Tombstone by accident. You have to be heading there and the attraction is its name – one of the best known of all the old Wild West towns. It’s redolent of outlaws and lawmen, the site of the O.K. Corral and its infamous gunfight. And it draws tourists from around the globe who find, once they reach this otherwise unprepossessing place, that it’s a lot better than they were expecting. And a lot more fun.

Tombstone was founded in 1879, quite late for an Old West town, and its fortunes were built on silver mining. From 1877 until 1890, local mines produced more than $US50 million in silver bullion. In the heady days of the 1880s, Tombstone had a population of 14,000 and proudly boasted four churches, a school and two banks. A little less proudly perhaps, it also had 110 saloons, 14 gambling halls and numerous brothels.

The miners and cowboys, who weren’t above regular cattle rustling forays into Mexico, kept the town jumping.

The glory days lasted for little more than a decade, however, when rising water levels in the mines made extraction unprofitable. By the late 1890s, Tombstone was virtually a ghost town.

It was tourism that uncovered the gold in thar hills. When the inhabitants began to leave Tombstone for more economically viable climes, much of the Old Town was boarded up and left undisturbed under the baking desert sun. Tourism began to take off in the mid-20th century; luckily, most of the main thoroughfare, Allen Street, remained intact.

Nowadays, some 500,000 tourists a year come to Tombstone, which has a population barely exceeding 1500 people. The Bird Cage Theatre is a favourite. In the 1880s, the saloon and gambling hall operated 24 hours a day; its name comes from the small mezzanine rooms overlooking the main hall where prostitutes plied their trade. Whiskey-fuelled brawls regularly took the place apart and gunfights barely raised an eyebrow but the main claim to fame was a poker game, with a minimum $US1,000 buy-in, that ran for eight years without a break.

When it was closed in 1889, the Bird Cage was boarded up with all its contents still in place and remained that way until it reopened in the 1930s. Most of the interior, from the wallpaper, light fittings and red velvet curtains to its magnificent cherrywood bar, is original.

It helps that the highway connecting the I-10 with areas to the south, skirts Allen Street; the dusty red dirt street is closed to regular traffic. Visitors dodge horses, carriages and stage coaches while the locals, dressed in character for the Wild West, provide Kodak moments.

Each day at 2pm, there is a re-enactment of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, where Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and his brothers went up against a bunch of ornery outlaws in October 1881. Allen Street is lined with museums, saloons, restaurants with staff dressed as dancehall hostesses, and – inevitably – lots of gift shops.

Even the Boot Hill graveyard, which operated from 1879 until 1884, is carefully preserved and tourist-friendly.

It’s easy to get a little sniffy about this kind of pasteurised history, a Westworld where nothing goes wrong, where gunfighters have a jauntily self-mocking tone beneath their carefully-cultivated menace (so as not to scare the little kiddies), and the tourists play along with the joke. It’s a theme park to be sure but Tombstone has a careless charm that gets under the skin and gently eases away any niggling doubts about historical authenticity.

Tombstone, a town that would otherwise have quietly faded away, finds its fortune in acting out the past. In taking history out from under its bell jar, everybody goes home happy at the end of the day. Which is infinitely better than going home in a pine box.

Words and photos © David Latta

 

 

Travelling Small Town America: The Other Las Vegas


It may come as something of a surprise (or not, depending on how well you know me) if I declare an eternal fascination for Las Vegas. Not, I might add, the neon glitter of Las Vegas, Nevada, but the understated historic charms of Las Vegas, New Mexico.

This is the place you’d holiday with Bill Collins (in matching salmon-coloured sports coats) rather than Richard Wilkins, where the only peacock feathers can be found on the peacocks they belong on, and finding a Busted Flush may require a trawl through the local thrift store for a John D. MacDonald novel.

The New Mexico version was the original, established in 1835 when this part of the world was the property of Mexico. It was an important link on the Santa Fe Trail and many of the Old West legends, including Wyatt Earp and Billy The Kid, peopled Las Vegas at various times. Doc Holliday ran a saloon there (and killed a man in a gunfight); another bar owner was Robert Ford, who murdered outlaw Jesse James. In its heyday, Las Vegas was not only one of the biggest cities in the region but reputedly one of the roughest, its reputation for lawlessness far exceeding Dodge City or Tombstone.

The city’s fortunes picked up further with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in 1879. It was at this time the town split in two with Old Town based around the original 1835 city square while New Town was anchored by the railway station two kilometres to the east.

The glory days of Las Vegas lasted until the 1950s, when rail travel was supplanted by the automobile and the burgeoning interstate highway system. Santa Fe, that tourist-choked Disneyland of adobe, the town that launched a thousand homeware stores, became the drawcard for interstate visitors and Las Vegas went to sleep, a lucky occurrence for those who enjoy a destination with lashings of history. There are more than 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, from richly-ornamented commercial buildings through to the pristine residential streetscapes of Lincoln Park, Carnegie Park and the North New Town district.

One stand-out is the extraordinary Montezuma Hotel, otherwise known as the Castle, built in the Queen Anne style as a luxury spa resort by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company. Completed in 1886, it replaced the first hotel, which opened in 1882 and burnt down the same year, and a replacement building that suffered the same fate.

The first building in New Mexico to have electric lighting, it continued as a hotel until 1903, then underwent varying uses including a Jesuit seminary. In 1981, it was bought by American industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer as the site of a United World College, which continues to this day.

Las Vegas also stands out as a location for film-making. In the silent movie era, it was favoured by cowboy star Tom Mix (about 30 films he either starred in or directed utilise Las Vegas as a backdrop). More recent films include the 1984 action adventure Red Dawn (Patrick Swayze loved the area so much he bought an 800-hectare ranch nearby, where his ashes were reportedly scattered following his death in 2009), Convoy (1978), John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), All The Pretty Horses (2000), and Wild Hogs (2007). Actor Val Kilmer also has a 2,000 hectare ranch outside town.

There are two movies that will forever be closely associated with Las Vegas. The main street of Old Town was used in Easy Rider (1969), where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper ride behind a parade and are arrested, meeting Jack Nicholson in the town jail. And extensive use was made of Las Vegas in the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men (2007), especially the Plaza Hotel on the Old Town Square.

Built in 1882 in a High Victorian Italianate style, the Plaza Hotel is a stylish and comfortable base from which to explore the town. The adjacent Charles Ilfeld Mercantile Building, which opened in 1891 as the first department store in the southwest, was restored and added to the guestroom inventory in 2009.

Las Vegas is small-town America at its most striking. The locals are friendly and hospitable, there’s a good mix of antique shops, book stores and cafes, and the relaxed pace of life makes it an ideal rest stop on any road trip through America’s southwest. For architecture and movie fans, the attractions are even more compelling.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgTrWof9f8s

Words and photos © David Latta