The courthouse was built on the Vizina Mining Claim at the corner of Third and Toughnut Streets. The site near the two square block Chinatown, but not the land itself, was donated and the County avoided the inflated cost of buying real estate on booming Allen and Fremont Streets.
The cornerstone for the Courthouse was laid on August 10, 1882 in a grand ceremony. A time capsule was placed under the cornerstone containing items of interest including coins, rich silver ore specimens, poems, the post office regulations, and an essay by County Supervisor M. A. Joyce, entitled "How We Boss the County." The town band played and important officials made speeches until an afternoon thunderstorm broke up the festivities.
The construction of the Courthouse was supervised by A.J. Ritter, local undertaker and cabinet maker, in conjunction with the architect, Frank Walker.
Much of the wood framing for the interior of the building was built of lumber from Cochise County's Huachuca and Chiricahua mountain ranges.
To make the bricks for the 12 to 15 inch thick exterior walls, a quarry and kilns were established in Walnut Gulch, just outside of town. Clay was dug from borrow pits by Chinese laborers, then shaped and fired into finished bricks that were delivered to the masons at the Courthouse construction site. The native clay produced a light brown colored brick, and the finished walls were painted red to meet the architect's specifications.
The Courthouse was built quickly and efficiently, with the first floor being occupied in December 1882, before the building was completely finished. On March 3, 1883, the County accepted the completed Courthouse.
The Board of Supervisors' usually brief minutes publicly thank A. J. Ritter for "the care, economy and industry exercised by him in the erection of a building, which…meets our entire approval and challenges criticism." The total cost of construction was under $50,000. Ritter was later elected Cochise County Treasurer, and served from 1885 to 1888.
Offices on the first floor of the Courthouse included the Cochise County Recorder, Treasurer, Sheriff, Jailor and the jail cells. The second floor housed the County Attorney's office, Judge's quarters, Jury Room, Grand Jury Room (also used by the Board of Supervisors) and the wood-paneled Courtroom where many of Tombstone's notorious trials were held.
TOMBSTONE LOSES THE COUNTY SEAT
Between 1879 and 1883 more than $3 million of silver was mined in Tombstone, but like many Western mining boomtowns, Tombstone's heyday was short lived.
By 1890 Tombstone was in decline. The mines hit groundwater at the 600 foot level. Pumps were installed, but the pump house burned and the mines flooded. The pumps were rebuilt, but Tombstone's mines were plagued by calamities, fires and more bad luck.
Thousands of residents left Tombstone, some selling their worldly possessions for the price of a stagecoach ticket. Others loaded up their small homes on horse-drawn wagons, and moved on to the next mining boomtown such as Pearce, Courtland, Gleason or Bisbee.
Tombstone held its breath, hoping for a revival of mining and prosperity. By 1900 Tombstone's population was 700, less than ten percent of Cochise County's nearly 10,000 residents.
The Tombstone Consolidated Mining Company was organized in 1900 to extract the tons of silver remaining in the flooded mines. Huge pumps were installed, pumping over 2 million gallons of water per day from the mines. The price of silver dropped to 50 cents per ounce, and silver mining in Tombstone became economically infeasible.
Meanwhile, the city of Bisbee, built by corporate copper mining interests and located 26 miles south of Tombstone, was booming. Demand for copper soared to supply the world with copper wiring needed for electricity and telephones. By the date of Arizona Statehood on February 14, 1912, Bisbee was the biggest, liveliest city between St. Louis and San Francisco.
In 1929 an election was held, and Cochise County residents voted to move the County Seat to Bisbee. Tombstone fought hard politically and through the State Supreme Court to challenge the vote, and lost. By 1931, the last of the County offices had moved to the new Art Deco style courthouse in Bisbee.
Losing the County Seat meant that Tombstone was no longer the financial and political hub of Cochise County. Restaurants and hotels in Tombstone, where out of town citizens had once stayed while conducting business at the Courthouse, were deserted.
The Great Depression of the 1930's hit Tombstone hard. Businesses closed and owners of many historic buildings removed their roofs to avoid paying taxes on the empty structures. The population of Tombstone dwindled to about 150 hardy souls.
TOMBSTONE DISCOVERS ITS FUTURE - BASED ON THE GLORIOUS PAST
During the late 1930's, to help stimulate rural economies and promote Americans' pride in their unique heritage, the Federal government encouraged tourism and historic preservation nationwide, and sent photographers from the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) to document Tombstone's historic buildings and streetscapes.
America's nostalgic love affair with the Old West had begun, encouraged by Hollywood's western movies. The first westerns were made in the early 1900's, and the first feature-length western movie, titled "Arizona," was released in 1913. The 1930's was the beginning of Hollywood's most prolific period for western films.
Tombstone's Allen Street became a part of a new cross-country tourist route, US Highway 80, extending from Savannah, Georgia to San Diego, California. Known as "the shortest, straightest, and only year-round ocean-to-ocean highway in the US", the partially paved Borderland Tourist Route was popular with adventurous tourists and health seekers attracted by Arizona's mild, dry climate.
Tombstone was beginning to see the economic value of its historic legacy. A 1933 Tombstone Epitaph newspaper article identified the old Courthouse as a potential location for a City museum to pay tribute to Tombstone's heyday, but nothing much came of the idea at the time.
In 1942 Cochise County sold the Courthouse building to the City of Tombstone for $1. The old building was used primarily for storage, and also as a "haunted house" for thrill-seeking youngsters.
In 1946 a scheme to convert the Courthouse into a 60 room luxury hotel was proposed by a group of Douglas, Arizona investors, and the City of Tombstone leased the building to the investment group.
After removing interior walls to install an elevator, building a shed-like "penthouse" on the roof, and making structural changes to divide the second story's 16 foot tall space into two separate floors of guest rooms, the hotel plan proved infeasible. The developers abandoned the old Courthouse to the elements. The windows were broken, and birds, bats and vermin moved in.
THE COURTHOUSE IS RESTORED
In August, 1955, the City leased the Courthouse to the Tombstone Restoration Commission (TRC), a nonprofit organization, to restore the building to its former glory. TRC's dynamic president, Edna Landin, led a fund raising campaign that brought national attention and small donations from all over the world.
For each donation of $5 or more, a brass plate was engraved with the donor's name, which can be seen in the Courthouse entry hall today. Companies donated money and building materials, and TRC members invested countless hours of labor to restore the Courthouse.
In 1956 TRC moved their museum to the restored first floor of the old Courthouse. There TRC maintained an office and bookstore, and accommodated space for the Chamber of Commerce, and the City Library.
THE COURTHOUSE BECOMES A STATE PARK
In 1958 the Arizona State Parks system was established. TRC wanted the Courthouse to become a State Park. They felt that while Commissions may come and go, the State would always be there to properly restore and maintain the Courthouse. Members of the TRC made presentations to the State Parks Board. They were successful, and Tombstone Courthouse was adopted as a State Historic Monument.
The City deeded the Courthouse and museum exhibits to the State Parks Board, with a provision that if the State failed to maintain the building or to keep the Courthouse Museum open, the building and its contents would revert back to the City of Tombstone.
Due to the restoration work of the TRC, Tombstone Courthouse was ready to open as Arizona's first operational State Park, on August 1, 1959. In its first year as a State Park, TRC continued to operate the Courthouse museum because the State hadn't budgeted for staff. TRC also completed the restoration of the second story windows.
On July 1, 1960, the State took over full operation. Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park was popular from the beginning, with an average of 2,000 visitors per month. In the 1960's two television series, "Tombstone Territory" and "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp" increased worldwide awareness of Tombstone. The Courthouse museum was known, then as now, as the place to go to discover the facts behind the legends.
IS THE COURTHOUSE CLOSING?
In most years, Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park has made a profit for the State, except in the hardest of economic times. However, on January 15, 2010 Arizona State Parks Board voted to close Tombstone Courthouse, along with twelve other parks, due to State budget shortfalls. The State "swept" money from the State Parks operating budget to cover general government expenses, with only the nine most economically profitable Arizona State Parks remaining open.
Art Austin, Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park Manager, said that if the Courthouse does close, the artifacts will be removed, and the building boarded up and made "weather-tight, vermin and hopefully people-proof". The cost of closing, securing, monitoring and later re-opening the building would be substantial.
As Vic Robeson, current president of the Tombstone Restoration Commission said, "Nobody wants to visit Tombstone and find the historic Tombstone Courthouse boarded up and surrounded by a chain link fence, possibly with razor wire on top."
About the author:
Linda Weiland is a freelance travel writer based in Bisbee, Arizona. You can visit her website at www.ScenicDetours.net for stories of historic sites, scenic drives, and ghost towns in Southeast Arizona.