Chuck enjoys traveling and, over the years, has had the opportunity to visit many fascinating places in the U.S. and the world.
90 Years of Courting Tourists
Autumn in southern Arizona is the start of the tourist season. The blistering heat of summer has passed and most days are what used to be referred to as Indian Summer when I was growing up in the northeastern part of the U.S. Except instead of a few days of great weather that sometimes occur at this time of year in the northeast, this balmy weather lasts, with the exception of an occasional day or two of rain or light snow, until May or June. Snowbirds, retirees who flock to Arizona for the winter, begin returning along with tourists and business peo both to to attend trade shows and enjoy sunny afternoons on the area’s numerous golf courses.
Outdoor events and activities abound, especially in nearby Tombstone, Arizona which has outdoor Wild West events on weekends throughout the year especially especially from September to May.
This past weekend, my wife and I traveled to nearby Tombstone, Arizona for the town’s 90th annual Helldorado Days celebration. Tombstone is known worldwide for its wild west “shoot ‘em up” reputation and draws tourists from all over the world to the numerous wild west events it hosts year round.
Tombstone Still Sits Above a Rich Vein of Silver
Helldorado Days is special in the sense that it marked the start of Tombstone’s most recent pivot to keep the city alive and avoid becoming a ghosttown which was the fate of many of its nearby neighbors
Like many other western towns that sprouted up[ almost overnight following the discovery of a rich vein of ore, Tombstone, within the span of a few months, went from nothing to Arizona’s largest city and one of the most prosperous cities in the American West in the 1880s.
Unfortunately, like other mining boom towns, Tombstone’s prosparity was short lived. As miners continued to dig deeper along the large silver vein they hit the water table which caused the mines to flood. An expesive pumping system solved the problem, but, shortly after, a fire destroyed the pumps just as the prce of silver started to fall making it uneconomical to replace the pumps needed to continue mining
However, unlike most other mining boom towns which became ghost towns once the ore was depleted, Tombstone not only managed to survive but also faces the potential of another silver boom as the town still sits on top of a considerable amount of unmined silver. An increase in the price of silver and/or new mining technology could revive Tombstone’s mining past. Unfortunately, it has been over a century since fire destroyed the pumping system and there has been no significant change in the needed technology or price of silver which has forced the town to find other ways to survive.
Tombstone, Arizona - the Town Too Tough to Die
When the city was founded in March of 1879 the population amounted to about 100 miners living in tents. Two years later in 1881 the population was about 6,000 and by 1885 estimated to have reahed about 10,000. Given the fact that the 1880 dicenial U.S. Census recorded the population of the entire Arizona Territory (Arizona didn’t become a state until 1912) to be 40,440 people this made Tombstone in 1885 the Territory’s largest city and home to one-quarter or more of the people living in the Arizona Territory.
Following the 1886 fire that destroyed the pumping station and led to the closing of the mines the city’s population began a steady decline. Unlike many other mining boom town’s Tombstone’s population included many middle and upper class families who brought churches, schools and other amenities associated with middle and upper class culture. This group and others who had sunk roots in Tombstone dug in and tried to keep the city viable.
Obviously, Tombstone’s boomtown population also attracted rougher elements of society - numerous illiterate, and mostly single, young men looking to make their fortunes in the mining boom. While the upper class section of town had churches, a school, fine restaurants and hotels with furnishings, food and chefs imported from Europe, the city also had over 100 saloons, gambling halls and bordellos. There were also the cowboys some of whom worked on the surrounding ranches and others who engaged in the lucrative stealing of cattle and then smuggling them along with liquor and tobacco into Mexico the border of which is 30 miles to the south.
Old Guard Struggled to Keep Tombstone Alive
The collapse of the mining industry resulted in an exodus of most of the young, single men who had come to work in the mines and other unskilled jobs. With no work available and no other attachments to the town this group simply moved on.
Others who had put down roots in the town and had some income tended to hang on and hope for better times. These people were proud of Tombstone and its past and they struggled to attract people by promoting its past glory of having been one of the most famous cities between San Francisco and New Orleans due to its wealth and cultural amenities.
As the decades passed and along with them the passing of the old guard and their longing for the return of Tombstone’s past died with them. As people continued to leave and the town’s population having fallen to almost 500 residents the new generation of leaders decided something had to change if Tombstone was to survive.
Concluding that Tombstone’s past wealth and culture were no longer an attraction for people, the new generation of the town’s boosters decided to shift their marketing focus toward the darker side of the city’s past. - the gunfights, saloons, gambling halls and bordellos that had thrived on the other side of Allen Street.
Media in 19th And 20th Centuries Created Wild West Myth
As the United States expanded its borders westward in the 19th century and literacy and incomes increased among the population in the eastern part of the U.S. and Europe newspapers and publishing houses began flooding these readers with articles and stories, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as pictures of the West. Artists came west and painted beautiful pictures of the spectacular landscapes found in places like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Zion and other areas with unusual and spectacular landscapes as well as creatures like grizzly bears and herds of buffalo that stretched for miles. Authors and reporters produced stories, both factual and fictional (and most often a mixture of the two), about gunfights, bank robberies, Indian wars, etc.
William Cody (Buffalo Bill) entertained audiences in the eastern U.S. and Europe with his live Wild West performances. The advent of motion pictures has resulted in the production of live action western movies that have been entertaining audiences around the world for the past century.
The market was there and with increased travel opportunities people could now safely and easily come and visit in person this wild and beautiful part of the world that they had previously only been available in print and movies.
Tombstone Decides to Capitalize On Its Wild Past
Tombstone launched its new attempt at saving itself on its 50th Anniversary celebration with a three day event taking place on Friday, Saturday and Sunday October 25-27. The event was called Helldorado Days and the plans called for celebrating Helldorado Days annually on the third complete 3-day weekend in October.
The celebration’s name comes from an 1881 letter to the editor of Tombstone Nugget newspaper complaining that for most people who came to Tombstone in search the riches of a modern day Eldorado (a mythical city of gold and wealth) ended up working in low paying menial jobs instead. For them Tombstone was Helldorado rather than El Dorado.
In addition to the annual Helldorado Days Tombstone continues have special events one or two weekends a month year round. It continues to close off two or three blocks along Allen Street to traffic every weekend both so visitors can wander back and forth along the street without worrying about traffic other than the horse drawn stage coaches giving visitors a tour of the area. There is plenty of free parking around the Allen Street area.
Practically every building along Allen Street has a plaque giving its history and all of the shops along Allen Street cater to tourists selling food, western books, clothing and other accessories. There is at least one historic hotel on Allen Street and another just around the corner with other hotels and motels in other parts of town.
Tombstone Vigilantes Entertain Tourists
In addition to professional actors giving paid performances at the OK Corral and other places a local volunteer re-enactment group stages gunfights and small historic reenactments on Allen Street every weekend. These are not only free and entertaining but also educational as, like other re-enactment groups they strive for authenticity and historical accuracy. Their clothing is either original or authentically reproduced and they research old newspapers, letters and other historic documents in scripting their street acts. They also do fundraising (things like a 19th century Christmas Ball which we have attended) for local charities.
While the decision of the Tombstone city fathers in 1929 to change focus from Tombstone’s early glory days when it was one of the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan cities in the West to focusing on it being one of the more famous Wild West towns didn’t bring thousands of new residents back to town, they did succeed in keeping the town alive while doubling the population to its present 1,300 people. More importantly they created a tourist industry that brings thousands of people each year from all over the world to visit Tombstone and spend money in the town..
Tombstone in Relation to Phoenix and Tucson
Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on March 24, 2020:
Peggy - Thanks for your comment. Tombstone is a town that lives up to its claim to being "the town too tough to die" And, yes there is still a lot of silver below the town but to make money mining it the price of silver has to increase, new, lower cost technology needs to be developed or some combination of both has to occur before the silver can be mined economically.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 24, 2020:
I loved all of your photos of that Helldorado Days event in Tombstone, Arizona. It is interesting that the town still sits on a substantial amount of silver that is underground. Thanks for sharing this information with us.
Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on November 10, 2019:
Bill - Thanks for the comment. Come on out in October - the weather is usually great and the Helldorado days are great fun. It is a 3 day (Fri, Sat & Sun) with much of the entertainment occurring on Fri and Sat with the big parade on Sunday. We had to go on Sunday because my wife's current work schedule is Tuesday through Saturday but she is changing her work schedule to Sunday through Thurs so next year we are planning to attend both Friday and Sat and spend the night in either Tombstone itself or nearby Sierra Vista. Regardless of when you come down plan on visiting Tombstone on a weekend as there is always something going on in Tombstone on weekends.
Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on November 09, 2019:
Hi Chuck. What a fascinating article. I am familiar with Tombstone but have never heard of the Helldorado Days celebration. It’s actually a very creative play on words and a great way to draw visitors there. I love how they dress up in the period outfits and I’m sure the parade is a hoot to watch. Will have to add this to the list for our someday tour of the southwest.
Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on November 04, 2019:
Linda Powles - thankyou for your comment. Tombstone is an interesting town. Weekends are the best time to visit because they usually have a few free Old West reenactments in the street on Allen Street. There are also other sites - the OK Corral, Largest Rosebush Museum, Mine tour, etc as well as interesting shops and restaurants. These other sites do charge to visit but the prices are usually reasonable. My wife and I enjoy visiting a few times a year for the special events and always enjoy our visit.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on November 04, 2019:
I'd so love to visit Tombstone. It looks so interesting.