We are staying in the general vicinity of Tucson for a while and made a short hop to the town of Benson for a little trip back to the wild wild West. Benson was a railroad center for nearby mining towns and there is an Escapees campground there. After being members of Escapees for over two years, we finally stayed in one of their parks. And the SKP Saguaro Co-op (available only to members) is a great place to hang for awhile.
But even though we were in the middle of the desert, it rained our entire first day. Part of a front that came in through California. Part two came through a couple of days later. Time for a little nesting.
But we of course had to go check out the famous town of Tombstone about a half an hour away. The O.K. Corral in Tombstone is the site of the famous gunfight between Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday and Tom and Frank McLaury and Bill Clanton, resulting in the death of the latter three.Three companies offer different re-enacments. The gunfight was not without controversy as two of the men killed may not have been armed. Read more about the gunfight and events leading to it here.
Tombstone is still a cool little Western town, if a bit touristy. But the main street is closed to vehicles and is lined with authentic buildings. Main Street is also sprinkled with people in period dress to add to the ambiance.
We had lunch at Big Nose Kate’s Saloon. Namesake Kate, one of the “shady ladies” became the common-law wife of one Doc Holliday. The saloon is all done up in old west kitsch. Fun!
The most interesting site for me was the Boothill Cemetery, where over 250 people were buried. Most of them were the town’s first pioneers. The cemetery was neglected for many years and reclaimed by nature, but the main part has been beautifully restored by some of the town’s citizens.
Among the people buried here are outlaws and their victims including Tom and Frank McLaury and Bill Clanton of OK Corral fame. Causes of death include hangings, killed by Indians, shootings, poisonings, suicides, falling into mines as well as a few diseases and other natural causes. While walking through the cemetery I was transported to the late 1800’s and marveled at the resilience of the people who lived here at that time.
Another fascinating place was the Bird Cage Theatre, a theatre, saloon, gambling hall, and brothel that opened during the mining boom of the 1880’s. The theatre was billed as one of the meanest and wildest places in Tombstone, and it’s said that 26 people were killed there during its eight years of operation.
The name referred to 14 “cages” or “cribs” that were suspended from the ceiling, 7 on each side of the gambling hall, where “shady ladies plied their trade”. The “ladies of the night” would close the drapes on the cribs when entertaining their clients. And the “real ladies” of the town never entered or even walked on the street in front of the Bird Cage Theatre.
But the theatre also hosted shows by many famous entertainers of the time.
The Bird Cage Theatre was sealed in 1889, when the town went bust after mines closed due to water seepage. What’s remarkable is that when new owners purchased it in 1934 and reopened it, they found that it was, for the most part, undisturbed. And it is still in its original condition with the addition of a number of artifacts from the town.
The theatre is said to be haunted, and there are ghost tours in the evening. I’m glad I didn’t sign up for a ghost tour, because on my self-guided tour I felt a very heavy weight the moment I entered and it didn’t lift until I left.
Of course, we signed up for one of the gunfights – pretty hokey, but it was at the actual O.K. Corral and included displays of old artifacts including an antique hearse, and an interesting documentary narrated by Vincent Price with a cool old diorama of various boom and bust phases of the town.
Also included was a copy of the Tombstone Epitaph that reported news of the trial that took place after the famous gunfight. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were the defendants and testimony from the prosecution and defense is recorded in the paper. They were declared not guilty and released.
The Tombstone Epitaph is the oldest newspaper in Arizona and its original building now houses various displays. Old printing presses include the original one which was brought by ship around South America. Displays also include lots of information about the history of the paper. A cool old building and worth visiting.
During our week in Benson we also took time to research health care plans and submit our application. And, ironically, during out health care planning, I caught a terrible cold, which lasted the rest of our week here. Ugh.
On the weekend, we headed to the 34th Cascabel Community Fair. Cascabel is “a rural community of about 200 ranchers, artists, farmers, ecologists and retirees.” Town residents Barbara Clark and her husband, David Blocker host the fair on their 83-acre property, where they live and operate a pottery business named Cascabel Clayworks.
The last five miles to the property are on an unpaved road, but it was quite a nice little fair, with live music, homemade soups served by the people who made them, and a nice variety of vendors. Funds from the fair go toward the community center, the volunteer fire department and community garden. We got to tour the home that the hosts built here and we found a beautiful handmade gift for our soon to arrive grand-nephew!
Cascabel is also known for their Bird Sanctuary, which was offering tours in exchange for a small donation during the fair. Incredibly, the sanctuary houses over 700 exotic birds. Most are given up by owners who didn’t realize what they signed up for when they bought an exotic bird or weren’t prepared to care for them for the 40-60 year lifespan that many of these birds have. The Oasis Sanctuary is the largest accredited parrot sanctuary in the U.S.
There are numerous aviaries and structures where the birds have room to roam throughout the 72-acre property. These birds live here for life. The sanctuary doesn’t breed them or adopt them out as they believe that these animals should not be kept as pets.
It’s an amazing place tucked away in the middle of nowhere. Towards the end of our stay in Benson, we visited the town of Bisbee, another old mining town. Bisbee is very reminiscent of some of the mining towns in Colorado. Probably because Bisbee sits at an altitude of about a mile, just like Denver.
Bisbee has lots of antique stores, galleries, restaurants and other quaint shops. Our very short visit was not at all long enough to check out the many interesting Victorian and Art Deco buildings in town, including the former Copper Queen Mine, which closed in 1985.
Alongside Bisbee sits another former copper mine, the Lavender Pit Mine, which closed in 1974. Erie Street, what is left of the former adjacent mining town of Lowell, now incorporated into Bisbee, sits on the other side.
This street is a ghost town of sorts and the buildings seem to have been left just as they were. Several have antique motorcycles in their storefronts. One has antique gym equipment in the window and modern gym equipment barely visible behind the window, we couldn’t tell if it was still in use or not. But there was no one in sight inside or outside.
Erie Street was kind of eerie, a real time capsule. Hector loves photographing old buildings so we spent a bit of time walking around the street.
On our way back from Bisbee we stopped in at the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in the town of Sierra Vista. We had Angel with us and our plan was to take a short walk down to the San Pedro River.
We walked around a one-mile loop, Angel with her tail up the entire way, she is a fierce girl! The area is at the confluence of the Sonoran and the Chihuahuan Desert, and boasts over 350 species of bird, 80 species of mammals and 68 species of amphibians and reptiles. Another wild, wild West of sorts.
Our walk to the river was lovely with lots of little birds flitting about, diverse plant life and mountains in the distance. And we noticed many interesting looking trails in this subtly beautiful area.
Well, even though our exploring time in Benson was cut short due to my being sick, the rain, and planning for our health care plan (which we submitted by the deadline), we still enjoyed the area very much.