The Southern Arizona towns have been rivals since the beginning. Separated by 23 miles, founded within a few years of each other, competitors for the county seat, the communities offer a stark contrast on how to survive when tourism supplants mining.
Now they are very different tourist destinations.
Tombstone clings to the past, an endless replay of an infamous October day in 1881.
Bisbee has transitioned from mining to art.
When prospector Ed Schieffelin wandered out from the safety of Fort Huachuca looking for fortune, the solders told him all he would find in the desert would be a tombstone.
The Apache had recently called the region home and deadly raids from the reservation were still common.
Schieffelin had the last laugh when he found silver and gave his claim the moniker Tombstone in 1877. Soon a boomtown was born in the Sonoran Desert. During the peak years in the 1880s the town boasted about 2,000 residents, with about a quarter working in the mines. Millions of dollars in silver and other minerals were pulled up from shafts in the ground. The town was built atop mines named Lucky Cuss, Contention and Good Enough.
Tombstone came of age as one of the last Wild West towns, and lurid reports from The Tombstone Epitaph forever linked the town with gunfights, revenge and vigilante justice.
One in particular was elevated to mythological status by Western writers and Hollywood directors: “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” on Oct. 26, 1881. The famed gunfight actually took place in a vacant lot next to C.S. Fly’s Photo Studio, down the street from the percussive-sounding O.K. Corral.
It pitted the Clanton and McLaury families, said to be allies of cattle rustlers, against Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday, tactless lawmen who had perfected the art of cracking belligerents in the head with their revolvers and dragging concussed troublemakers to jail. Even newspapers at the time took sides.
Thirty seconds, 30 shots. Arguments continue to this day over who to cast as hero and villain.
Was it the three Earp brothers with their friend Holliday?
Or was it the Clanton brothers, Ike and Billy, and McLaury brothers Tom and Frank?
Morgan, Virgil and Doc were wounded; Billy, Tom and Frank were killed.
A few years later, as the silver mines penetrated the water table, Tombstone’s economy faltered.
Popular books and movies brought unwelcome fame, and the town eventually embraced tourism as an economic lifeline. Tombstone, which now has a population of about 1,400, markets itself as “The town too tough to die.”
Today the town core mimics the look of the 1880s with a mix ture of history and hokum. Costumed residents walk board sidewalks on false-fronted streets as narrated stagecoach tours rattle by; tickets are sold for a daily reenactment of the gunfight.
Bisbee, founded in 1880, fared better with mining than Tombstone.
Ore was profitable for 100 years. The town, named for a judge and early investor, is located in a canyon of the Mule Mountains, emerging into view as Highway 80 burrows out of a tunnel south of Tombstone.
Downtown is in the canyon bottom, with residences up stairways on the hillsides. The 1,034 steps on nine staircases make up the Bisbee Stair Climb, an annual event on the third Saturday in October. If you prefer to stick to the business district there’s no need to tackle the nine named staircases.
Copper, silver, gold and turquoise all were mined here, some from mine shafts that still dot the hillsides. We were warned by our hotel owner to be careful hiking the hillsides outside the city. Not all the shafts have been sealed.
Just east of town a fence stands at the edge of a massive open pit mine falling away from the highway. The Lavender Pit mine, 900 feet deep and covering 300 acres, could hold several football stadiums.
The brick buildings and winding streets of Bisbee could be the perfect movie set for a 1920s film. It has been reborn as a quirky, Bohemian artists’ colony, originally drawn to the town by its funky style and cheap rents.
Last spring Bisbee made headlines as the first Arizona city to allow same-sex civil unions. Before that, the biggest controversy in Bisbee was the 1917 illegal deportation of 1,300 striking miners. They were rounded up and hauled via railroad cattle cars to be dumped in New Mexico.
Today the town, with about 5,500 people, welcomes tourists, encouraging them to walk around the downtown and explore its art galleries and antique shops, attend its theater and visit upscale restaurants.
The town offers several bed and breakfast or hotel options in refurbished old-time buildings. If you’re looking for a chain motel or dining experience, try elsewhere; if quirky and historic sound interesting, make time to stay.
In the 1930s Bisbee won the battle with Tombstone to be home of the Cochise County Courthouse. The building is classic Art Deco style.