In the old west town of Tombstone, Arizona I found an attraction I would never have expected. Although most people come here to see the famous OK Corral and watch the “gunfight” from 1881, others are excited to see the world’s largest rose bush, especially in the spring when it is blooming. I really enjoy seeing attractions that are the largest, smallest or oldest of their type and roses are especially appealing to me, so seeing this was my kind of thing. Actually, Tombstone has the nickname “The Town Too Tough to Die,” but I couldn’t resist the above title instead.
The root for this bush was planted in the back of a boarding house in 1885 after being shipped from Scotland. The rose is a Lady Banksia but has the nickname “Shady Lady.” When the rose got too big and had to be put on a trellis across the back patio it provided a shady spot for Tombstone residents. It now covers more than 8,000 square feet and when I saw it, it was densely covered with miniature clusters of white blooms. It doesn’t require any feeding or spraying, but does require watering and pruning. Several truckloads of brush are pruned from the bush each January.
The “Shady Lady” is now the centerpiece of Tombstone’s Rose Museum. It has been in the same family for six generations. There is a theory as to why the bush has grown so large. During the early years of Tombstone before plumbing, sewage seeped into mine shafts and it is believed the roots reached into the shafts and were fertilized. The branches of the bush are so thick that while standing under the canopy, you can’t see the blooms on top, so the owners have placed a raised platform in back of the trellis area so people can see over the top of the bush. It is hard to imagine the largest rose bush would be in a dry desert town in southeast Arizona. For those interested, clippings of this rose can be purchased. Each spring Tombstone celebrates with a rose festival and parade.
While in Arizona, I visited Tombstone on two different days. The first time I saw the reenacted gunfight which is held throughout the day. Tombstone embodies the Wild West and the shootout between the town’s “lawmen” including Wyatt Earp, his brothers and Doc Holiday against a group of outlaws known as the cowboys, is one of the most famous events in Old West history. Many books have been written and films made which has kept Tombstone a popular tourist spot.
Before I came here I had to brush up a little on Tombstone history as I had never read about the shootout and the OK Corral or seen any of the Tombstone films. I knew little about Wyatt Earp, the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, once Tombstone’s famous citizens. As we gathered in the bleachers to watch the showdown, the event was explained by our capable narrator and all the characters were introduced. The gunfight itself was short, lasting less than a minute. There is only speculation as to who started the shooting due to a lack of reliable witnesses, but the outcome left three cowboys dead and three lawmen wounded. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday went on to other adventures and much notoriety throughout their lives. In order to be more historically correct, Tombstone has an exhibit at the “exact spot” where the shootout occurred, although this is also still in question. Eight life size figures of the Earps and the cowboys stand facing each other with their guns.
On my second visit to Tombstone I learned more about the town during a group walking tour with the popular Dr. Jay, a retired dentist. Dressed in period attire with a pistol at his side, he provided lots of interesting details about the Old West, the development of western films, how Tombstone got started and why it was too tough to die.
He talked about a few serious fires that burned much of the town and how the silver mines which brought the town its wealth had tunnels that went underneath for many miles. He pointed out that the foundation of the town is only several feet thick due to all these tunnels. For entertainment he and other Tombstone citizens like to come and watch when the utility company is putting in a pole. Once a hole is finished, the citizens wait to see if the pole will drop out of sight and a new hole will have to be dug. He gave more information about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the gunfight and took us to the street next to the OK Corral, explaining that this was where the fight really ended up happening. Dr. Jay was funny and animated and full of so many interesting stories I wished I was taking notes.
After the tour I wandered some more around the streets and down the wooden sidewalks. I came upon “Johnny Bones,” one of the town’s more colorful characters who is a busker or street performer. Supposedly buskers are the second oldest profession (learned this from Dr. Jay) and were very popular in the 1800’s. Johnny reported he had to fight with the city to be allowed to perform on the street. Covered with bells, coins and playing the bones, he does a fine job dancing with that big smile always on his face.
During Dr. Jay’s walking tour he mentioned historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and since we didn’t go by it, I headed over to get a peek. It is hard for me to pass up an old church, especially when this one has a unique history as the oldest Protestant church in Arizona.
Built in 1882, the church was financed by miners and prostitutes, who were the ones that had the money back in those days. The prostitutes conducted their business in very small rooms called “cribs.” To honor their generosity, the town moved one of the cribs to the property in back of the church as an exhibit. A piece of history I doubt I will ever see again in the backyard of a church.
While I was taking a photo of the front of the church, a woman came over and asked me if I would like to see the inside, explaining that she was the church’s warden. She gave me a tour and and showed that much of the inside is original, including the ceiling beams, pews, light fixtures and stained glass windows. Two of those windows have bullet holes from the days of the wild west. In one room is the building’s original adobe brick and looking up I could see the bell tower. She said that she really enjoyed ringing that bell every Sunday morning before the service. When traveling it is always enjoyable meeting the locals and learning more about the places where they live and work.
Tombstone is proud of their oldest buildings, with the Birdcage Theater one of the few originals left after the fires. The theater was open from 1881-1889 during the height of silver mining and was one of the rowdiest places with gambling, prostitution and fighting. Prostitutes had their own rooms with red velvet curtains near the ceiling called “bird cages” where they charged $25.00. Downstairs in the basement high stakes card games went on with a $1,000 deposit taken from each prospective gambler. What is most interesting is that after it closed in 1889, it was not reopened until 1934 where everything was left intact inside. The building has never been restored but is preserved so the rooms with their peeling wallpaper, frayed curtains, dusty furniture and relics are left as they once were. This place is literally frozen in time and fascinating to see.
Big Nose Kate was the girlfriend of Doc Holliday and a famous person in town. The restaurant in the photo above is named for her and is the most popular place to eat. Inside it is decorated in old west style with a guitarist playing and singing. For those that wish, you can dress up in period costume that is provided. I thought the food and atmosphere were worth coming for.
There is lots more to be seen in historic Tombstone but I hope you enjoyed a look at some of the attractions. I will close with a sunset picture from Tucson.