Around 1940 the population of Tombstone, Arizona, was less than 1,000 people, as it had been for decades. The ghost town was truly in danger of fading from the map entirely. A series of fires in the 1880s damaged mining equipment, making the rebuild of the lucrative mines far too costly and residents fled, some with nothing more than their stagecoach ticket. By the 1930s Tombstone’s buildings were literally crumbling to the ground.
In 1877, prospector Ed Schieffelin traveled through Arizona, then Apache territory, looking for deposits of gold and silver. The soldiers at a nearby fort told him he’d sooner find his own tombstone than find gold in those hills, but he pushed on. When Schieffelin found silver, he named his first claim Tombstone and the town soon followed. Already by 1882, the town was big enough to warrant a grand new courthouse that rivaled those of much more established towns.
Almost as quickly as it was built the mining town was suddenly barren. By 1900, the population was a scant 700 people and buildings were already falling into disrepair. Once boasting a bowling alleys, 4 churches, 3 newspapers, and over 100 saloons, the town of Tombstone settled into a scraping existence, maintained only because it was the county seat until 1929. When these photos were taken in the 1930s and ’40s the town was very quiet indeed, with ruins on nearly every corner.
With buildings left to decay and very few visitors, the site of the Earp Brothers’ 1881 OK Corral shootout was doing only a minor trade in tourism during the Great Depression. The Birdcage Theater, Crystal Palace, and a few other sites were maintained as museums of sorts, but for the most part the town was deserted save for a handful of residents.
Tombstone’s nickname is The Town Too Tough to Die, harkening back to the Old West shootouts, but also to the relentless few who continued to call it home throughout the 1930s.
The Crystal Saloon saloon was still open in 1940, with spittoons and tobacco advertisements keeping in the spirit of the cowboy sense of entertainment, customers at the bar in boots signaling that the establishment was indeed still open.
Despite the fact that folks still lived there, the courthouse and city hall had long been abandoned and sat empty. It was only after the widespread popularity of TV and film Westerns that Tombstone would become a proper tourist site, but that took decades to accomplish.
Today the town has under 2,000 residents, not a huge increase from 1940. Though Tombstone is not in danger of being completely forgotten and does have a consistent tourism trade, the buildings are still in danger.
The National Park Service issued some critical warnings and guidelines to the town about the preservation of the crumbling buildings which have repeatedly suffered from fires (symptoms of weather and shoddy boom town construction) combined with decades of neglect. Even so, there are still those who still flock to reside in Tombstone and relive the Old West everyday.