The Old West Lives in Tombstone

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on August 22, 2004

Pistol-packing Bill Traywick strolls the boardwalks of Tombstone, Ariz. (pop. 1,504), much as lawman Wyatt Earp did more than a century ago, keeping a sharp eye out for the Clanton gang. The only difference is Traywick’s six-shooter is loaded with blanks.

Since 1986, Traywick has portrayed Earp, the town’s most famous gunfighter, during weekend re-enactments of the infamous Oct. 26, 1881, shootout at the OK Corral, taking over the role from his father Ben, who started performing the shows in 1970.

“It’s still pretty exciting, because it’s different every time you do it,” the junior Traywick says. “People react a little bit different.”

Even Bill’s wife, Gena, dresses in period costume, emulating the reputed 3,400 licensed good-time girls that once helped make this southeastern Arizona silver mining town a non-stop melodrama.

In 1877, after the town’s founder Edward Schieffelin discovered silver and not his tombstone as skeptical associates predicted, growth exploded even by Western boomtown standards. At its peak in the 1880s, Tombstone swelled to 20,000 miners, cowboys, ranchers, gamblers, gunfighters and assorted speculators.

Life for the vast majority who didn’t strike it rich was hard and sometimes violent. The consequences are evident at Boot Hill, the town’s notorious cemetery, a rifle shot from Tombstone’s hub of restaurants, gift shops, motels and saloons. Grave markers leave little doubt that for a time life for those who lived by the gun could be short-lived.

Local residents still mull over whether Wyatt Earp, his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, and sidekick Doc Holliday or their cowboy adversaries, the Clantons, had right on their side. Mayor Dustin “Dusty” Escapule, whose great-grandfather established a ranch near Tombstone in the 1870s, says his family did business with the Clantons and regarded the Earps as con men. He does acknowledge, however, that Tombstone owes its current economy to the Earps. As local mining declined, dying finally about 20 years ago, books and movies about the OK Corral spawned tourism.

“The only industry that Tombstone has right now is history,” says Escapule, who has childhood memories of vacant lots, cattle running in the streets and a population of 500 or less. He credits a group of out-of-town attorneys, who renovated the town’s historic buildings in the mid-1960s, for the turnaround.

Surrounded by open, undulating desert, Tombstone still evokes a frontier atmosphere. The Bird Cage Theatre is the only completely original building on the town’s main thoroughfare, Allen Street, but restored saloons and covered boardwalks seem straight out of Tombstone’s past. Visitors flock to the OK Corral, and a few wander to the edge of the town’s compact street grid to view the 1882 brick courthouse, now a state park.

Nowadays, Tombstone remains indebted to its gun-fighting legacy. Locals and visitors alike revel in events such as the annual Labor Day weekend Rendezvous of the Gunfighters.

“The Wild West pretty much personified the way we ended up and our attitudes as Americans,” says Rob Tenny, a local bookstore owner who plays Sheriff Johnny Behan with Traywick’s re-enactment group, the Wild Bunch. “The Earps were only here for 28 months, but in that time they created an image that will live on forever. People want to get back to what it was like in those days, where right is right and wrong is wrong, and you took care of business.”

Evoking old-time values has been a lifelong passion for Ed West, alias Curly Bill Brocius, the Wild Bunch’s Clanton crony.

“I wanted to be a cowboy ever since I was a kid,” says West, who drives a truck when not toting his two silver six-shooters. Indicating the latter, he adds: “I grew up wearing these things and every chance I got I strapped them on.”

Not everything about being a cowboy is a smooth ride though, West admits. Getting around by horse, for one thing, can wear on a man’s undercarriage.

“I don’t know how they did it,” West confesses. “I ride about 30 minutes to town and I’m about dead when I get here.”