A Brief History of Tombstone, Arizona

Edward Schieffelin
Edward Schieffelin

Tombstone reached its pinnacle of riches and then faded, all within the short span of eight years. The West's wildest mining town owes its beginning to Ed Schieffelin, who prospected the nearby hills in 1877. Friends warned him that all he would ever find would be his own tombstone. But instead of an apache bullet, he found silver — ledges of it — and the rush was on.

Miners soon built a shantytown on the closest level space to the mines, then known as Goose Flats. Remembering the grim prophecy given to Schieffelin, and with tongue in cheek, they changed the name to Tombstone.

The year 1881 was an eventful one for the mining camp. The population reached 10,000, rivaling both Tucson (county seat) and Prescott (territorial capital). The Earp and Clanton feud culminated in the famous gunfight near the OK Corral. A disastrous fire burned out much of the infant town, but it was immediately rebuilt. Schieffelin Hall was erected to provide legitimate theater and a meeting hall for the Masonic Lodge.

When water began to seep into the shafts, pumps were installed, but the mines were soon flooded to the 600-foot level and could not be worked. By 1886, Tombstone's heyday was over, but not before $37,000,000 worth of silver had been taken from the mines.

As Tombstone's population grew, so did its political power. In 1881, the Arizona Legislature established Cochise County. No longer would the nearest county office be a long two-day ride.

Built in 1882 at a cost of nearly $50,000, the Cochise County Courthouse was a stylish building as well as a comfortable symbol of law and stability in these turbulent times. It housed the offices of the sheriff, recorder, treasurer, and the board of supervisors. The jail was at the rear, under the courtroom.

A series of colorful people held office here. John Slaughter was a local cattleman who, as sheriff, virtually cleared the county of outlaws. Some were awkwardly unconventional, such a Deputy Sheriff Burt Alford, who was experienced on both sides of the law.

Tombstone remained the county seat until 1929, when outvoted by a growing Bisbee, and the county seat was moved there. The last county office left the courthouse in 1931.

Except for an ill-fated attempt to convert the courthouse into a hotel during the 1940s, the building stood vacant until 1955. When the Tombstone Restoration Commission acquired it, they began the courthouse rehabilitation and the development as a historical museum that has continued to operate as a state park since 1959. It features exhibits and thousands of artifacts which tell the story of Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park.