American Album : A tamer Tombstone cherishes its six-gun heritage--and some fear getting bushwhacked by progress.


“Well,” the marshal of Tombstone observed, “you could safely say the town’s a lot more calm than it used to be.” He reached down to pick up a discarded scrap of paper from the wooden sidewalk. Allen Street was filled with the shadows of a quiet afternoon and, believing the peace to be secure, Marshal Ed Schnautz headed back toward his office behind the O.K. Corral.

Schnautz, 60, a retired Phoenix policeman, cuts an impressive image in his tan Stetson, black boots and leather vest, walking the same route that Marshal Virgil Earp trod 108 years ago. Schnautz earns $2,108 a month and figures a marshal shouldn’t frequent bars in his own jurisdiction. Earp earned $25 a month and, with his brother Wyatt, had financial interests in some of Tombstone’s finest drinking and gambling establishments.

Invitations to Hangings

Back when Tombstone was the West’s wildest mining town, 110 saloons operating around the clock spread out from Allen Street, and Boot Hill cemetery held 250 corpses, none of which had been the victim of old age. Sheriff Scott White used to send out invitations to hangings--seven men were taken from his 16-cell jail and hanged one March day in 1884--and John Heath, who had robbed a Bisbee, Ariz., store owned by the great-uncle of former Sen. Barry Goldwater, became something of a local legend by telling a mob before his lynching: “Promise me not to shoot into my body when I’m strangling and give me a decent burial. I’m ready.”


As Schnautz passed the Lucky Cuss, where Nettie Fernley, 93--"America’s oldest professional pianist"--plays briefly at 5:15 p.m. each day, he mused: “If I was young, I wouldn’t stay here a minute. But as it is, if you’re a 40-hour man, this is a good, quiet town to be in. Sure there’s history here, but there’s history everywhere. I just try to look at the town for what it is.”

Tombstone’s population, which reached 12,000 in the boom years, has leveled off at 1,600, and many of its residents now are ex-Californians and retirees. There are five saloons left, including the Crystal Palace, which still mixes its own sarsaparilla but has raised the price of a shot of whiskey from 12 cents to $2 in the last hundred years. Drunkenness is no longer much of a problem in town and Schnautz’s two holding cells are almost always empty. Drugs coming up Highway 80 from Mexico are of more concern to the marshal than alcohol.

Heritage of Violence

Paradoxically, what has saved Tombstone from the fate of other Western towns whose mines ran out is its very heritage of violence--particularly the gunfight on Oct. 26, 1881, when the three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday (then dying of tuberculosis) fought the Clanton gang at the O.K. Corral.


At least nine movies and two books have celebrated the shoot-out, and tourists who pour in here from throughout the world find a town that seems remarkably unchanged. Most of the buildings are original. Old men still gather on the benches in front of the Crystal Palace at noontime. In an age of electronic journalism, The Tombstone Epitaph is still set by Linotype.

Although Tombstone has been tamed, the town may soon be in for a jolt--and another boom. A group of investors, including the Epitaph’s editor, Wallace Clayton, hope by year’s end to have a steam train operating daily on a 110-mile loop from Tombstone to Bisbee. Preliminary studies indicate that 300,000 visitors a year would ride the sightseeing train, and that has stirred considerable debate in town.

‘Controlled Progress’

“Nothing’s going to be spoiled,” Clayton said. “We have a historical commission that protects the integrity of Tombstone. No original building can be altered. There’s been extensive planning. The increased number of visitors will bring a lot of prosperity to the town. To me, that’s controlled progress.”

Not everyone is so sure. “I don’t think the people want to see a big boom like Orlando or Orange County,” said City Councilman Bill Brett. He is a retired lieutenant colonel from nearby Ft. Huachuca, an Army post for military intelligence that once was the home of the 6th Cavalry, which conquered Geronimo and the Apaches.

“Things could get out of control,” Brett said. “This is one of the few Old West towns that hasn’t been turned into an amusement park and we have an obligation to protect it. There’s a good quality of life here, and I think we have to ask: What will the cost of growth be?”