This 1956 photo of Tombstone shows a modern, but economically depressed town. It wasn’t until Hollywood painted a fantastic picture of the Wild West did the town cash in its rough-and-tumble lore with tourists.
No doubt, the A1 Beer served at the Crystal Palace Saloon in 1956 – the year this photo was snapped – was authentic. The date painted above the entryway was misleading. Built at Fifth and Allen streets in 1879 as the Golden Eagle Brewery, its name was changed in 1881.
Changed as well was the structure’s configuration. Built as Tombstone’s first two-story building, the second floor was razed during the Great Depression to reduce the owner’s tax burden – a common practice when times were tough. Then, during a mid-1960s restoration, a false front was tacked onto the roofline to create the allusion that the second story had weathered the decades.
During the spring of 1929, the Arizona Daily Star dispatched reporter Bernice Cosulich on a tour of the Broadway of America. Today’s Route 80, stretching from Benson to Douglas, then to the New Mexico border, the optimistically named route was a patchwork of gravel roads hailed by promoters as a transcontinental highway.
Cosulich had prepared for her trip by reading two rip-roaring, myth-making “histories” of Tombstone. She was crestfallen to discover that “modernism is reclaiming this historic old city….” A new “electric light plant costing $50,000″ had gone on line, and a new high school “stands where the old red light district used to be….” She noted a public swimming pool, a motion picture house for newfangled “talkies,” an ultra modern Piggly-Wiggly grocery store operating from the old can-can saloon building.
A.H. Gardner, president of the Chamber of Commerce, pointed to increasing highway traffic and lamented the town’s lack of accommodations. “What we need most is a new hotel,” he told the reporter. Gardner cited a recent evening when “eight cars filled with travelers ‘vainly sought room for the night.’”
Juxtaposed against newness – neon signs, a filling station, a makeshift landing field for “aeroplanes” – was an economically depressed town in the throes of rapid decay. Struck by its deterioration, Cosulich wrote that the Bird Cage Theater ought to “be cleaned up.” She said, “its present condition suggests a fire-trap.”
Months later, Tombstone staged its first Helldorado Days. The Star reported that “street scenes” – meaning mock shootouts – would be “vividly re-enacted.” Buildings, it reported, were “being given the proper old-time background by carpenters, painters and decorators in charge of erecting false fronts and ancient signs.”
As the name implied, Helldorado’s emphasis was not on Tombstone’s important mining history but on bawdy ladies, booze, bad men and bullets fired during episodes of tawdry lawlessness. It was the first step in an effort to transform a failed city into a tourist destination grounded in myth and sensationalism.
Fox Movietone covered the event “for news reel purposes,” and told the Hollywood press that “scenes” would be “interwoven in Western talkies.”
Despite the publicity, Helldorado did not mitigate the malaise inflicted by the Depression. Tombstone limped along until the close of World War II when a booming economy sparked unprecedented tourism.
Then, along came television in the 1950s. Shoot-‘em-up Westerns became a staple and lent credence to a West that never was. Tombstone profited mightily.
In 1954, a commission was formed to encourage refurbishing what remained of the town’s 19th century buildings. An out-of-town editor thought the idea was nonsense. “Bringing back to 1880 the physical aspect of the old camp is causing a lot of arguments….There are those who have spent a lot of money on new, modern establishments and look with a jaundiced eye on the prospect of spending more money to make their business houses look old and shabby.”
As evidenced by the above photo, de-modernizing was no quick task. Note the “inauthentic” concrete sidewalk, blacktopped street, power poles, lighted signage, and spiffy automobiles parked curbside. All were slated for removal.
In time, much of Tombstone was refurbished or replicated. Tourists came and cash registers jingled. They still do today.
- W. Lane Rogers. Photo courtesy of the author.