Few eras in history have been as romanticized as the Wild West. It was all about the gold—and with the riches came outlaws. Any Western town worth its salt saw gunfights and hold-ups, but back in the day, Arizona was especially notorious. From the famed shoot-out at the O.K. Corral and brilliant robberies to the Western movies that immortalized it all, Tucson is the perfect place to relive the best parts of the glory days of the Wild West.
One of the most famous shoot-outs in the history of the American West was the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, only about an hour’s drive from Tucson. The year was 1881, right in the midst of a silver mining boom in Tombstone. The town was plagued by a loosely-banded gang known as the Cowboys. Members included Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury. They were small-time criminals, rustling cattle, stealing horses, holding up stagecoaches, and generally getting up to no good.
The Earp brothers—famed lawmen Morgan, Virgil and Wyatt—eventually came into town to dole out a bit of justice. Tensions were already high between locals and perceived “outsiders” who came in to run the mines, so the Cowboys didn’t take kindly to the brothers or their friend, notorious gunman Doc Holliday. The two groups had been going back and forth for a while, so all it took was a chance encounter on the street for things to turn deadly. The shootout lasted only thirty seconds, and at the end of it, Billy Clanton and both McLaury brothers were dead. It was widely covered in papers across the country, and became a symbol for how violent the West was. Things in Tombstone remained contentious until the silver mines started failing in the mid-1880s.
But Tombstone’s violent past has, in essence, saved the city. It draws in tourists from all over with its daily re-enactments of the showdown, its old-timey saloons like Big Nose Kate’s, and its boothill cemetery, where you can see the final resting place of the three cowboys killed in the shoot-out. And make sure to visit the Birdcage Theatre, the town’s old brothel that’s allegedly haunted by the ghost of a former prostitute.
Besides shootouts, train robberies were also common in the Wild West. Bandits would tamper with the track and converge on the stopped train, guns blazing. Passengers’ jewelry, personal valuables in the train’s safe, anything of worth being transported … nothing was off-limits. Bandits would then bring the goods back to their hideout, where they would lay low until they decided to strike again. Tucson’s Colossal Cave was a real-life hideout for a gang of train-robbing outlaws. They hit several trains in quick succession, disappearing into the Rincon Mountains after each. After several hold-ups, sheriffs and deputies, assorted cavalry, Yuma Indian trackers, and even Marshal Virgil Earp formed a posse to hunt down the gang. By the time the law reached the hideout in Colossal Cave, the bandits had disappeared, as had their cache of stolen goods.
Courtesy of Colossal Cave Mountain Park
Eventually, the gang widely accepted to be behind the thefts botched another train robbery near El Paso; several died in the ensuing shoot-out, the others stood trial. But, to this day, no one is entirely sure what happened to the loot once stashed in Colossal Cave. Some say that the gang left it there in a well-concealed hiding spot, planning to come back for it, and that it’s still there, waiting to be found. The beauty of the park, the natural history of the cave, and the stories from the ranch it sits on make Colossal Cave well worth a visit, whether or not you stumble upon hidden outlaw treasure.
The turn of the century in Tucson didn’t stop the West’s wild ways. John Dillinger was a notorious outlaw from the 1930s, known for leading a gang that specialized in robbing banks and police stations. He and his crew eventually made their way to Tucson, where they decided to lay low in the Hotel Congress.
Photo: Pete Gregoire
Unfortunately, a hotel fire broke out during their stay. The gang managed to make a dramatic escape as the flames crept toward their third floor room. Once they were safely outside the building, they realized they forgot their suitcases, filled with stolen bills, and asked the fire department to go back inside for their bags. Once the firefighters saw the names on the bags and the contents inside them, they alerted the police who captured Dillinger and the rest of his men. This set off a chain of events, wherein Dillinger escaped from prison and went into hiding for several months, occasionally resurfacing for a shoot-out with police, managing to evade capture until he was killed attempting to flee the cops. The Hotel Congress survived the fire, and remains standing as a symbol of just how enduring Tucson’s Wild West reputation is.
If your version of the Old West stars John Wayne, then head for Old Tucson. Columbia Pictures built the 1860s-era Western town in 1939 for their film “Arizona.” Filming the movie against a real set instead of a backdrop changed the course of Westerns as we know them; between 1945 and the 1980s, dozens of Westerns were filmed at what became known as Old Tucson. It has been hugely prolific in the genre; John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Charleton Heston, Harrison Ford, Steve Martin, Leo DiCaprio, and plenty more all starred in films shot at Old Tucson. In fact, if you visited the O.K. Corral, you’ll be interested to know that the 1993 movie “Tombstone” was filmed here.
Photo: Pete Gregoire
But beyond the Hollywood history, it’s also a living Wild West town with tons of activities and attractions. Fake gunfights and stunt shows, can-can and folklorico performances, guided tours, and costumed interpreters all tell stories of what it was like living in the Wild West. You’ll also find rides (like a mine adventure, a train, and antique cars), games (does it get any more Western than a shooting gallery?), and other things to do (like panning for gold or going on a horseback ride). If you’ve ever wanted to get in touch with your inner John Wayne, this is the perfect place.