Friday, December 4, 2009

Tombstone, Arizona as a Mirror to Barkerville

Tombstone, Arizona as a mirror to Barkerville, B.C.



Stephen Keith as Doc Holliday with Virgil and Wyatt Earp. Amy Newman photo




 After several weeks roaming around the American southwest Amy Newman and I drove into Tombstone, Arizona. Our goal was to combine time in the sun with research. Unless you are completely out of touch with western history you know that the mythologized Gunfight at OK Corral occurred here. Well, not actually in the corral, but an alley really. From the outset we both agreed we were taken with this town just north of the Mexican border.
            In the 1930s Tombstone, now branded  “the town to tough to die” was suffering the fate of most gold and silver towns.  Tough maybe, but it was about to die.  As locals told us, a movie came to town to film the gunfight story and someone said, “You folks are sitting on a tourist gold mine.”  The film was likely Frontier Marshall starring Randolph Scott in 1939, or My Darling Clementine, the famous John Ford 1946 western, starring Henry Fonda as Earp.  The slogan “to tough” comes from a 1942 film, Tombstone: The Town Too Tough to Die, starring Richard Dix as Wyatt Earp.
            The silver lead was followed and businesses set to work and created a town focused on the old west, and specifically gunfights.  And with good reason.  The 1880 town sat on top of several silver mines and murder and mayhem was rampant, as we will see.  The rebirth began with Helldorado Days in 1929, a now yearly event that attracts thousands of old west buffs to a weekend of shooting. It comes from a miner’s quote that, "instead of finding their ‘Eldorado’ of riches, many men ended up washing dishes or other menial jobs, finding instead, their ‘Helldorado’”.
            Amy remarks that, “While Tombstone has the status of a National Historic Landmark, it is wise to understand that you are not entering a museum, as you are in Barkerville. Being a real, living town, there is no fee to walk the streets and look around, as there is in Barkerville. But on the other hand, there is a charge for practically everything you may want to do, aside from wander the streets. If you want to take an underground mine tour it will cost you $12. If you want to visit the historic Bird Cage Theatre Museum it's $10. If you want to see a re-enactment of the "Gunfight at the OK Corral" (who doesn't?) it's $10. You can fire a handgun for $3, see the world's largest rose bush for $2, visit the famous Boothill Cemetery for a donation and sit and eat your lunch and have a beer while re-enactors shoot each other! There are galleries and clothing stores, cafes and hotels. It's a grand time, to be sure. Sure, it costs money being there. But what holiday doesn't?” 

Watch out - it's cocked! Richard Wright photo.

 Arguably the most famous graveyard in the world, “Boot Hill” asks for a $2.00 donation to get a guide to graves and runs a gift shop. Their revenue tops $115,000 a year. Visitation to Tombstone exceeds 600,000 – roughly six times that of Barkerville.
            Gunfights are a regular occurrence now, but you pay for them. At the Corral Tombstone’s Main event: "A tragedy at the OK Corral", a stage play by Stephen Keith, presents the cow-boys' perspective of the events leading up to the shootout and is presented inside the actual OK Corral. [The word cow-boys was new at the time and referred to a loose gang of rustlers and toughs who terrorized the town.] The actors, particularly Wyatt and Doc Holliday are rather good. Everyone in town seems to have an opinion about the gunfight and its outcome and now 130 years later there are still web-based argument going on about whether Billy Clanton had a gun and what position his arm was in when Holliday shot him.
            Even the OK Corral ticket seller noted that none of the original Earp gang wore the long black coats so popular today. (The same as the get-up worn by a former Barkerville manager.) Virgil had just got out of bed and had his gun in his pants, not a holster. Doc only carried one pistol not two and he did not have a “huckleberry glass” on his belt. And those red sashes the modern cow-boys wear?  Never happened. They were the idea of a costume designer for the movie “Tombstone” who liked the sash Wild Bill Hickok sometimes wore. Earp did not carry a long Buntline special and in fact did not like to use deadly force. 
            It made us wonder about our own costuming in Barkerville. How authentic are we? Everyone wants to wear the big, wide hat. Some early miners did, but check out the photos and there are as many Glengarry bonnets and Welsh caps as big hats.
            What also impressed us with the OK Corral actors was their staying in character. Wyatt remained Wyatt on the street and Doc was Doc.  Only the Earps’ niece, who was a girlfriend of cow-boy Clanton, broke character and appeared in civies. That took the edge off for us.
            Amy had a chance to meet with the actors portraying the Earps and Doc Holliday. “The actor portraying Holliday, Stephen Keith, was particularly good. He caught me up right away with his charismatic presence and line delivery. After quickly introducing myself and telling them how thrilled I was to be there, I told them about Barkerville. I said it would be great if we could find some kind of link between Wyatt Earp and the Cariboo – then maybe we (Newman and Wright) could bring these guys up to Theatre Royal sometime to do some kind of show. Wouldn't that be a hoot – or perhaps I should say a shoot? I asked them if they were all working actors – as opposed to amateurs just having fun and volunteering their time. 
            “ Keith replied with a laugh, ‘Well, we are working right now!’ 
“After telling them about our shows at Theatre Royal, they were all enthusiastic about the place and one of them remarked, "Yeah, we'd love to come to Barkersville!" 
I gently corrected them: "It's actually Barkerville – no 'S.' It's a common mistake", I said. "Everyone thinks it's 'Barkersville.”

The ages meet. Richard Wright photo.

The  OK Corral audience had come for a history lesson as well as entertainment. Sure, it was focused on violence but what story or movie or TV show isn’t?  So why do we not talk about the hanging of James Barry, the knife fights at Antler Creek and the shooting at Maloney’s road house on Bald Mountain or the killings of the three merchants by outlaw Boone Helm, who two years later was hung by vigilantes in Virginia City, Montana.  Great stories all. And they tell the whole story of our goldrush. We in Barkerville tend to avoid them.
            What Tombstone and the many writers and screenwriters have done is take the story of a misunderstood gunfight, by some accounts a multiple murder, and turned it into a myth.  It is the myth that is being sold, along with the Bird Cage Theatre museum and the hard rock mine tour.
            Some folks think there are too many barkers on the streets of Tombstone, but historic newspapers indicate this was the norm.  “Margueritas – two dollars all day,” sings one woman and “Next gunfight at 11:45”, says a heavy-set bearded man in period clothing.  He is not pushy and is willing to chat about the town and his life when we stop.
            At Barkerville we do the same on the Theatre Royal boardwalk, and the street actors do the same when encouraging folks to come to a “dissertation.”
            The driver of a plywood stagecoach insists it is small because “it is authentic – people were smaller then.” Riiiight! The other Concord stages do a good business, in part because it is a town tour as well.  Drivers wear a mic, which we observe could be hidden much better with modern equipment.


A tired team pulls a plywood stagecoach outside the O.K. Corral. Richard Wright photo.

            The Bird Cage theatre host seems more interested in pointing out the bullet holes (146) than talking about the old actors, but it’s likely what most people want to hear, that and the fact that the Bird Cages were actually cribs for prostitution. The 14 cages gave rise to the song we often perform at Theatre Royal, “She’s only a bird in a gilded cage”, written after a conversation occurred between performer Eddie Foy and songwriter Arthur Lamb concerning the ladies who “performed” here.
            The Bird Cage is not an operating theatre, to our dismay.  It opened in 1881 but when the ground water began seeping into the mines in the late 1880s the town went bust, the Bird Cage Theatre along with it. The non-stop poker game ended and the building was sealed up in 1889. We are told the building was not opened again until it was purchased in 1934. The new owners found that almost nothing had been disturbed in all those years. So the $10 we pay is for a self-guided tour of the theatre as it was in 1889.  The tour ends in the gift shop, of course. But it was indeed a window into an 1880s theatre.


The Bird Cage Theatre museum. Richard Wright photo.

            So in summary, as historical theatre producers, what intrigued us with Tombstone was the authenticity, and in some cases the histrionics, the theatrical aspect and the fact that visitors were learning while enjoying themselves.  The town offers everything from hard rock mining tours, stagecoach rides and the Bird Cage Theatre, through the gunfights and a shooting gallery to restaurants like the Nellie Cashman house (a Cassiar miner buried in Victoria) to western art galleries. It was an interesting blend of history and the entrepreneurial spirit.
            Amy: “What was so fascinating to me about Tombstone, was the intricate balance of commerce and culture that we saw everywhere. The dusty streets were packed with stores, trolley cars, museums, restaurants, art galleries, stagecoaches, venues for gunfights – you name it. All that was needed were some live animals being herded up the street and some really bad language being shouted across the street and it would have been like a scene out of "DEADWOOD" (HBO series dear to the hearts of many Barkervillians).”

We got many ideas in Tombstone. Here's one. Richard Wright photo.

Evidently this blend was not always evident.  The site is a National Historic Landmark and in 2004 the NHL governing body threatened to take away the designation if certain criteria were not met. Clearly it is difficult to blend a modern town, and businesses that have to profit, with a historic site. But now, for us, it seemed to work.  The main street is now dirt and closed to traffic and the signage and building facades are more sympathetic. Their statement of significance has defined the “period of significance” to a broader period. It has expanded from the narrow five minutes of the gunfight to extend from it’s founding in 1878 to 1930 when the county seat was moved to Bisbee.
            It came about by enrolling the community in the planning of a long-term restoration plan for the Historic District.  Businesses and government and interested citizens united in a plan that will see historic Allen Street become a linear historic park. Resurfacing the street was a first step and it is now a dirt street once again closed to traffic.
           A NHL report says that because of the community involvement “there has occurred a renewed spirit of community support for the concept of both halting degradation of the NHL as well as eventually meeting high standards of restoration."
            We try to remember when the last community meeting was held to focus on an inclusive plan for our BC historic sites.
            Amy: “What I’d love to see is a cultural exchange between the two towns. I would like folks in Tombstone to see the connection to another gold rush town way up in B.C., Canada. I would love for them to see what we do and how we do it, in order for them to experience the idea that authenticity can sell, too. They would marvel at our location – the mountains, the trees, the heat and the cold that we experience through the seasons. I would also like to see some of our friends in Barkerville visit Tombstone, as we did, to learn what they do – to see how the town has come together to create such a niche for itself. We could use that kind of myth making, too. And to experience the endless expanse of desert – the brilliance which the sun brings to the area, day after day, all through the year. That it was so sunny, so warm at the end of October was a revelation to me. This kind of exchange would be a great learning experience for both of these similar – yet very different – historic regions.”
            For Amy, “Being in Tombstone was a real thrill. It was a town full of exciting things to do and see and experience. It felt as if the whole place was humming with life. Funny – when the place is named what it is and its fame today is based solely on the killing of one group of men by another group of men. The original event brought pain and death to real people when it happened in 1881 – this at a time when Barkerville had already had its heyday in the 1860s. By 1881, Barkerville was becoming a town of ghosts. But in Tombstone they have made a town famous for the all-American myth of "The Good Guys vs. The Bad Guys." Well, it seems that we as a people love the concept of good and evil, black vs. white. We are not that fond of grey vs. grey, though the more one looks into the story of this famous gunfight, it does seem as though there could be a lot of grey involved, depending on your point of view.”
            “What we need,” I tossed off lightly as we left, “is to find that the Earps and Doc Holliday traveled to Barkerville. That would make a good link for our American neighbours.” It’s not that we need another story or myth. In general what I meant was that we needed to show connections between the gold and silver rushes that took place in North American between the California Rush of 1849, the Fraser and Cariboo from 1858-1862, and the rushes to Deadwood, Dakota and Arizona in the 1870s.  It is clear that many of the men and women involved traveled from one rush to the other – all seeking Eldorado.
            The glint of gold in my research pan came when I returned home and spent several hours with newspapers and databases. I discovered there was, after all, a direct connection – well maybe two degrees of separation, between Wyatt Earp and Barkerville. But that is a story for the next post: Wyatt Earp: a Cariboo miner’s avenger.
 A hard rock, silver mining tour. Richard Wright photo.


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