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Charleston: Tougher than Tombstone?

Jacob W. Swart’s Saloon in Charleston, Ariz., which he bought in 1881 from Frank Stilwell, an accused conspirator in the murder of Wyatt Earp’s brother, Morgan.

Jacob W. Swart’s Saloon in Charleston, Ariz., which he bought in 1881 from Frank Stilwell, an accused conspirator in the murder of Wyatt Earp’s brother, Morgan.

“If a corpse had a gun on him and the fatal shot came from the front, you didn’t look for the killer.”

Such was one resident’s memory of Charleston.

Now only a pile of adobe ruins, Charleston in its heyday was allegedly tougher and wilder than nearby Tombstone. Charleston had 13 to 15 saloons, four mercantile shops, butcher shops, restaurants, two Chinese laundries, hotels, a telegraph office, Mrs. Hugh’s boarding house, the Eagle and Royal hotels, a church, a school, corrals and private homes.

The 1880 U.S. Census lists a population of 350, but during the next two years it may have been as high as 800.

The Clantons of the renowned gunfight at the OK Corral had the first boarding house in Charleston when Ike Clanton erected a canvas “hotel” building that was used until more substantial accommodations were built.

Arizona Territorial Gov. Anson P.K. Safford visited Tombstone in 1879, and offered to build a 10-stamp mill at the closest source of water, the San Pedro River. Millville provided the mill, and Charleston grew because of the mill. The original Charleston town site was 19 square blocks with six north-south streets 80 feet wide and six east-west streets 50 feet wide. Taxes collected on gambling and prostitution provided the money for the school and local government administration.

Charleston’s Justice of the Peace Jim Burnett administered law and order in Charleston on his own terms. He held trial any time and any place and served as judge and jury. His justice was swift, and there were no appeals in his court. Burnett collected and pocketed the fines, leaving him with no shortage of funds. His career came to an end on July 7, 1897, when William Greene, a local rancher, shot and killed Burnett outside of the Can Can Restaurant in Tombstone. Burnett had blasted and destroyed a dam belonging to Greene. The water swept down the wash and drowned two little girls, one of whom was Greene’s daughter. Greene never stood trial for killing Burnett.

When production at the Tombstone silver mines slowed because of underground flooding, work at the Charleston mill slowed as well.

A miners’ strike in 1894, combined with a drop in silver prices, further reduced the ore output. Mill production declined, and in 1903 a railroad enabled ore to be shipped to Tombstone cheaply.

The Millville mill shut down at the end of 1885, striking the death knell for Charleston.

The earthquake of May 3, 1887, was one of the largest in the West where shockwaves were felt from Phoenix to El Paso, Texas. The fires created from the falling rocks on extremely dry brush produced an ash that sifted down into the San Pedro River. Thirty minutes of continued tremors reduced most of Charleston’s adobe buildings to rubble. Few people stayed, and the town was never rebuilt.

In 1943, troops from nearby Fort Huachuca used the Charleston town site as a gunnery range for recruits to practice street fighting with live ammunition. It was dubbed “Little Tunisia” by the troops who trained there because Arizona and the South African country of Tunisia are approximately the same latitude and have similar environments.

Charleston is administered today by the Bureau of Land Management and is located within the San Pedro Riparian Area. Most artifacts from the town of Charleston have been removed, but the north side of town has many petroglyphs represented by concentric circles, snakes, lizards and stick figures. Across the river from Charleston are the remains of the old stamp mill.

— Jane Eppinga. Sources: The Journal of Arizona History and files at the Arizona Historical Society, Photo courtesy of Arizona Historical Society.

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