With foresight and determination, city leaders have worked hard for more than a century to preserve Old West history in most Western towns.
Some people rescue abandoned dogs, beached whales or wild mustangs, but there are those inspired individuals with the foresight to rescue history before it escapes our collective memories.
These three true Western towns are examples of places in which history lives and the spirit of the Old West is still alive thanks to crusaders such as Edna Landin, who led an effort to save the 1882 Tombstone Courthouse and designate the town as a National Historic District.
Sharlot Hall was another rescuer of history in Prescott, where she served as Territorial Historian from 1909 until 1912.
Often, it’s a collective effort to establish a historical society to preserve the vintage buildings, photos and artifacts that tell the stories of how their towns developed.
I salute these rescuers and encourage readers to visit these three true Western towns to experience what they have preserved. Plus, put on your cowboy boots and also stop at the other towns in which there’s a whole lot of history happening.
Frontier justice was quick in Tombstone in the 1880s. Five men were hanged on March 28, 1884 at the Tombstone Courthouse for their part in the failed robbery and murder of four in the so-called Bisbee Massacre of December 8, 1883.
The mastermind of the holdup, John Heath, got a life sentence in Yuma Territorial Prison. But outraged Tombstone citizens broke Heath out of the courthouse jail, got a rope and hanged him from a nearby telegraph pole. Five weeks later, the others dropped to their deaths at the courthouse gallows, according to Curtis Miles, Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park manager.
That violent tale is just one of many told at the courthouse, which is an essential stop in Tombstone. In addition to accurate portrayals of the O.K. Corral shootout, the state historic park has a recreated gallows outside the red-brick Victorian building.
The courthouse was abandoned after the Cochise County seat moved to Bisbee in 1929, just as the Great Depression tanked the Tombstone economy. The town had already been suffering as mining declined over several decades.
But Tombstone soldiered on, earning its nickname The Town Too Tough to Die.
The big renaissance of Tombstone followed the development of the motion picture industry and the invention of the Western film genre. That led to 40 or 50 Western-themed shows on three networks in the 1950s and ’60s. Those movies and TV shows captured the attention of generations of viewers now drawn to such Western outposts as Tombstone.
A half-century ago, one of Prescott’s many Victorian-era homes was facing demolition to make way for a Jack in the Box restaurant.
But a grassroots campaign raised $25,000 to move Bashford House – built in 1877 – eight blocks to the Sharlot Hall Museum. It was restored two years later and sits near the Territorial Governor’s Mansion, a modest 1864 log cabin.
“People here have always had that kind of appreciation for preserving the history of Prescott. That’s just what makes it so special” said Kathy Mancino, sheriff of the Prescott Corral of Westerners International.
The 225-member, 50-year-old Prescott Corral is one of the largest groups of Westerners International, which was founded in 1944; it has 60 U.S. chapters and 20 abroad.
The Prescott organization, whose purpose is to preserve authentic Western history, is among a slew of groups and local museums celebrating stories of the Old West. These include historical societies, Arizona Rough Riders, Whiskey Row Renegades, Prescott Regulators, Elks Opera House Guild and Yavapai Cowbelles – a ranchers’ group established in 1949.
Prescott’s museum scene is impressive for a city its size. It includes the above-mentioned Sharlot Hall Museum, Phippen Western Art & Heritage Museum, Museum of Indigenous People and a storefront Western Heritage Center on Whiskey Row.
The 1916 Yavapai Courthouse Plaza is the hub of the Prescott visitor experience, along with Whiskey Row. A monument honouring Rough Rider Buckey O’Neill graces the plaza.
Whiskey Row’s most prominent watering hole is the Palace Restaurant and Saloon, which was rebuilt in 1901 after a disastrous fire levelled the 1877 saloon. The infamous Earp Brothers and Doc Holliday drank at the old Palace.
Doc’s common-law wife, known as Big Nose Kate, is buried at the Prescott Pioneer Home Cemetery – just down the hill from Sharlot Hall.
Prospector Johnny Moss first mined the area for gold in the 1860s, staking claims to two mines; one was named Moss and the other was Oatman after Olive Oatman who was kidnapped by Apache warriors, sold to Mojave Indians and released after five years near the current townsite in 1855.
Gold mining would have its ups and downs in the Black Mountains until the early 1900s.
Oatman got a boost with a major gold discovery in 1908, but it wasn’t until 1915 when two miners struck a $14 million gold find, that it experienced one of the West’s last gold rushes.
By summer of 1916, more than 200 mines were operating in the Oatman district.
At the conclusion of the First World War, many ex-soldiers flooded into the Oatman area both in search of employment at the mines and reportedly to take advantage of Arizona’s dry climate to rehabilitate from being gassed in the war.
By 1930, it was estimated that $36 million worth of gold had come from the mines. The town boasted two banks, seven hotels, 20 saloons and 10 stores. By the mid-1930s, the boom was over and, in 1942, the last remaining mines were closed as nonessential to the war effort.
Oatman was more fortunate than other former mining towns as it was located on U.S. Route 66, known as The Main Street of America, a popular and important road for travellers. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard stopped in the town during their 1939 honeymoon. Gable fell in love with the town and returned frequently to play cards with the locals. The Oatman Hotel still features the Gable Lombard Honeymoon Suite.
In the late 1980s, Route 66 again became a popular destination for tourists from all over the world. Oatman started becoming very lively again.
Oatman today is a tourist town. The main street is lined with shops and restaurants. Wild burros – descendants of those brought by long-ago miners – wander the streets. Gunshots are heard as the Ghost Rider Gunfighters perform daily, displaying blazing six-gun shootouts in the middle of Main Street.
Where History Lives
Santa Fe, New Mexico
An exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum honours the 100-year history of Santa Fe’s Indian Market. Another exhibit explores the legacy of the Fred Harvey Company.
Ride the Grand Canyon Railway to the national park, including special steam-powered runs on 11 days in 2023. In town, enjoy the relics of Route 66 and the World Famous Sultana Bar.
See the historic downtown, the Fountain-Tallman Museum in an 1852 building and tour the Gold Bug Mine.
Route 66 gets a lot of attention here, but the Mohave Museum of History and Arts and nearby ghost town of Chloride are worth a visit.
Medora, North Dakota
This historic city is the gateway town to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Summertime is best to tour the local historic sites and attend the ever-popular Medora Musical.
This former mountain mining community earned the nickname The Wickedest Town in the West during its heyday, when rich copper ore deposits attracted miners, merchants, madams and more to the Arizona Territory.
Mesilla, New Mexico
The heart of the picturesque village of Mesilla is much the same as it was 100 years ago. Thick-walled adobe buildings (which once protected residents against Apache attacks) now house art galleries, restaurants, museums and gift shops.
Amador City, California
Amador City’s oldest structure, built around 1855, is the centre portion of the Amador Hotel. Up Main Street is the stone Fleehart Building (now the Whitney Museum) that dates from the 1860s. The original mining-era buildings are now home to unique shops.
Bisbee proved to be one of the richest mineral sites in the world, producing nearly three million ounces of gold and more than eight billion pounds of copper, not to mention the silver, lead and zinc that came from these rich lands. By the early 1900s, Bisbee had become the largest city in the Arizona territory.
Keystone, South Dakota
Keystone is a town with a split personality. Most visitors come to know New Keystone, which is a mile-long retail district stretched along US-16A – the main route to Mount Rushmore. But Old Keystone, or Old Town, is the original gold mining settlement along east-flowing Battle Creek.
You damn dirty cow thief, if you’re anxious to fight, I’ll meet you!
—Wyatt Earp to Ike Clanton before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral