In the summer of 1877 prospector Ed Schieffelin was working the hills east of the San Pedro River in the southeast portion of the Arizona Territory, when he came across a vein of very rich silver ore in a high plateau called Goose Flats. When Schieffelin filed his mining claim he named it "The Tombstone", after a warning given him by a passing soldier. While telling the soldier about his rock collecting experiences, the soldier told him that the only rock he was likely to collect among the waterless hills and warring Apaches of the area would be his own tombstone.
The town of Tombstone was founded in 1879, taking its name from the mining claim, and soon became a boomtown. Fueled by mineral wealth, Tombstone was a city of 1000 by the beginning of 1881, and within another year Tombstone had become the seat of a new county (Cochise County) with a population between 5,000 and 15,000, and services including refrigeration (with ice cream and later even ice skating), running water, telegraph and limited telephone service. Capitalists and businessmen moved in from the eastern U.S. Mining was carried out by immigrants from Europe, chiefly Ireland and Germany. An extensive service industry (laundry, construction, restaurants, hotels, etc.) was provided by Chinese and other immigrants.
Without railroad access the increasingly sophisticated Tombstone was relatively isolated, deep in a Federal territory that was largely unpopulated desert and wilderness. Tombstone and its surrounding countryside also became known as one of the deadliest regions in the West. Uncivilized southern gangs from the surrounding countryside, known as "cow-boys", were at odds with the northern capitalists and immigrant miners who ran the city and mines. On October 26, 1881 this situation famously exploded in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, leading to a continued family and political feud that resulted in multiple deaths.
Speculation was common that Tombstone would become a powerful metropolis.
Since Tombstone was in the desert, a company built a pipeline to supply the town with water. No sooner was this pipeline built than Tombstone's silver mines struck water.
As a result of relative lack of water and quick wooden construction, Tombstone experienced major fires in June 1881 and May 1882. The second fire was particularly destructive and signaled the end of the classic old boomtown mining city. After the mid-1880s, when the silver mines had been tapped out, the main pump failed, causing many mines to be flooded with deep groundwater, and Tombstone declined rapidly. The U.S. census found it had fewer than 1900 residents in 1890, and fewer than 700 residents in 1900.
Tombstone is home to perhaps the most famous graveyard of the Old West, Boot Hill. Buried at the site are various victims of violence and disease in Tombstone's early years, including those from the O.K. Corral. Boot Hill (also known as the old city cemetery) was also the destination for bad-men and those lynched or legally hanged in Tombstone. Admission to this historic site is free and donations are accepted.
The lot in which the historic gunfight at the O.K. Corral occurred in 1881 is also preserved, but this has been walled off, and admission is charged. However, since much of this streetfight occurred in Tombstone's Fremont Street (modern Highway 80), much of this site is also viewable without admission charge.
According to Guinness, the world's largest rosebush was planted in Tombstone in 1885 and still flourishes today in the city's sunny climate. This Lady Banksia rose now covers of the roof on an inn, and has a circumference trunk.
Currently, tourism and western memorabilia are the main commercial enterprises; a July 2005 CNN article notes that Tombstone receives approximately 450,000 tourist visitors each year. This is about 300 tourists/year for each permanent resident. In contrast to its heyday, when it featured saloons open 24 hours and numerous houses of prostitution, Tombstone is now a staid community with few businesses open late.
The Tombstone Historic District is a National Historic Landmark District. The town's focus on tourism has threatened the town's designation as a National Historic Landmark District, a designation it earned in 1961 as "one of the best preserved specimens of the rugged frontier town of the 1870s and '80s." In 2004, the National Park Service (NPS) declared the designation threatened, seeking to work with the community to develop an appropriate stewardship program. The inappropriate alterations to the district cited by the NPS include:
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 4.3 square miles (11.1 km²), all land.
There were 694 households out of which 20.2% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 47.6% were married couples living together, 7.9% had a female householder with no husband present, and 39.5% were non-families. 32.9% of all households were made up of individuals and 15.3% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.17 and the average family size was 2.73.
In the city the population was spread out with 19.3% under the age of 18, 4.9% from 18 to 24, 19.9% from 25 to 44, 32.5% from 45 to 64, and 23.3% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 49 years. For every 100 females there were 94.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 91.0 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $26,571, and the median income for a family was $33,750. Males had a median income of $26,923 versus $18,846 for females. The per capita income for the city was $15,447. About 13.0% of families and 17.4% of the population were below the poverty line, including 22.6% of those under age 18 and 13.1% of those age 65 or over.