Tombstone, renowned for its gunfights, gambling halls, brothels and bars, was a silver mining town of great wealth during the decade known as “The Roarin’ ’80s” in the 19th century.
Although small mines existed in 1857 in what would later become known as the Tombstone district, it wasn’t until 20 years later that prospector Edward L. Schieffelin discovered the rich silver deposits that attracted a mass migration of miners to the area.
The future town’s name was taken from an encounter between Schieffelin and soldiers from Fort Huachuca, who warned the prospector that all he would find in the area would be his tombstone.
By 1881, due to an influx of miners and businesses, Tombstone’s population reached 10,000, making it Arizona’s largest town .
That prompted a movement to establish a separate county that was carved out of eastern Pima County and christened Cochise County after the Apache chief Cochise.
Naturally, Tombstone was the county seat — until it was moved to Bisbee by Cochise County voters in 1929.
Lack of local water needed to process the high-grade silver-lead ores led to the establishment of towns including Charleston, Contention City and Fairbank along the San Pedro River.
The proximity of water and the erection of mills at the towns ensured the success of processing the ores, which were transported nine miles by wagon train from the Tombstone mines.
The cost of transport per ton was $3.50. Between 1879 and 1899, it’s estimated that the mines at Tombstone produced metals valued at $25.5 million. By 1933, an additional $15 million worth of metal was mined.
The area around Tombstone included several hundred mining claims, the most productive of which were just south of the town.
Prominent mines in Tombstone included the Contention, Emerald, Grand Central, Lucky Cuss, Silver Thread and Toughnut.
Tombstone’s fortunes were connected with the rise of groundwater, which caused flooding in the mines up to the 500-foot level in the mid-1880s.
The water pumps at the Grand Central and Contention mines were destroyed by a fire in 1886, and a dispute among the mining companies over the expense of renewing operations brought about a suspension of all important mining activities. The demonetization of silver in 1893 further hindered resumption of mining for the rest of the century.
Attempts were again made to handle the water issue in 1901, when the Tombstone Consolidated Mines Co. assumed control of the property. Two years later, the El Paso Southwestern Railroad built a line to Tombstone. But in June 1909, water flooded the mines at the 1,000-foot level when steam pumps seized up and boilers ruptured.
Although pumping resumed in 1910, operations were plagued by mechanical problems. By this point, the flow of water had reached in excess of 6 million gallons daily.
Small mining operations have continued to operate around Tombstone over the past century. During World War I, manganese deposits were mined around Tombstone, enhancing the local economy. Tourist attractions such as the Good Enough Mine Underground Tour provide a look at a mine that produced silver, copper and some gold and give credence to Tombstone’s motto: “The Town Too Tough to Die.”
Sources: “Geology and Ore Deposits of the Tombstone District, Arizona,” Arizona Bureau of Mines No. 10, Bulletin 143, 1938 (B.S. Butler, E.D. Wilson and C.A. Rasor); “The Tombstone Mining District History, Geology and Ore Deposits,” New Mexico Geological Society Guidebook, 1978 (B.J. Devere Jr.); “Arizona Metal Production,” Arizona Bureau of Mines, Economic Series No. 19, Bulletin No. 140, 1936 (Morris J. Elsing and Robert E.S. Heineman); “Railroads of Arizona, Vols. I-III” (David F. Myrick); “Mining and Milling in Tombstone District, Ariz.,” The Mining World, March 27, 1909 (S.F. Shaw); “Manganese Deposits of Eastern Arizona,” Information Circular, U.S. Dept of Interior Bureau of Mines, 1960 (L.L. Farnham, L.A. Stewart and C.W. Delong).
William Ascarza is an archivist, historian and author of five books, including “Southeastern Arizona Mining Towns” and “Zenith on the Horizon: An Encyclopedic Look at the Tucson Mountains from A to Z,” available at Antigone Books, Cat Mountain Emporium, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Arizona Geologic Survey’s Arizona Experience Store. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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