The Taverns of Tombstone
Last month I took little tour of the the taverns of Tombstone, Arizona. During the course of the outing on January 30, I promised three people that I would post my tavern notes on dinny.net by the end of February. My calendar says it's time to stop procrastinating.
In 1881, Tombstone had 110 saloons. In 2014, it has 10. I managed to visit 6 of them before staggering back to my hotel in a fog of historical appreciation. The ones I missed were Dragoon Saloon and Helldorado because they closed early, Apache Spirit Branch because it was too far away to walk to, and Crazy Annie's Bordelo because it was already locked up despite an OPEN sign on the entrance, a tantalizing red light above door, and three pickups in the gravel parking area. The other six are listed below in alphabetical order. (Note: This tour took place on a Thursday night. Do not try this on a weekend when hordes of tourists descend on the town and dilute the authenticity of its amazing taverns.)
- Big Nose Kate's Saloon, 417 E. Allen St.
This "Best Bar West of the Pecos" was named for Mary Katherine Horony (1850-1940), the girlfriend of Doc Holliday at the time the saloon first opened as the Grand Hotel in 1880. It hosts some impressive artwork, including stained-glass windows depicting such notables as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and of course Big Nose Kate. The wall of fame features autographed photos of more recent visiting celebrities such as John Wayne, Kenny Rogers and Willie Nelson. Once famous for "good whiskey and tolerable water", BNK now offers a huge range of modern beverages; tonight's specials are Bloody Mary, Fuzzy Navel and the BNK Hurricane. BNK is the rowdiest bar in town after 9 PM. It could be the haunted basement (google "the swamper") or the humorous signs (in the "cowboy's room," a notice over the ice-filled trough assures patrons that "The ice in this urinal is hardly ever used in our drinks"), but I think it's mostly the karaoke machine. People love to perform when they get a few beers in them.
- Crystal Palace Saloon, 346 E. Allen St.
The original building at this site, the Golden Eagle Brewery, burned down in 1882. Its replacement, the CPS, is the largest tavern in town, with enough space for scores of quaffists. True West Magazine has rated this bar "the best historically accurate saloon in Tombstone." From this, one might deduce that bartenders of the 19th century didn't like to chat with strangers. Such caution was surely prudent 130 years ago, when Arizona Territory was a magnet for a diverse assortment of smugglers, vigilantes, and whiskey-guzzling gunslingers. But when this modern-day Illinois stranger asked the bartender a question about the 1881 gunfight at the OK Corral, he was referred to the Chamber of Commerce, which was closed. Historical accuracy can be overdone, which may explain why CPS had only 7 customers while BNK had dozens.
- Doc Holliday's Saloon, 517 E. Allen St.
This bar is named for John Henry "Doc" Holliday (1851-1887), gambler, gunfighter and dentist of the old west. It is a small but friendly place. The bartender wrote [in my Tombstone Book of the Dead] that the building was the original Wells Fargo stop for Wyatt Earp (1848-1929), and later it was a mortuary. She showed me the original adobe bricks in the wall at the back. A sign behind the bar says "For your security and self-respect, don't drink and dial."
- Four Deuces Saloon, 101 S. Third St.
This was the former home of Addie Borland, a seamstress of the 1880's. I was impressed that the TV here was tuned to the History Channel instead of a basketball game. I was even more impressed with the outdoor cactus garden for smokers, because Tombstone is an inspiring place to stargaze. There are no large cities nearby, so there's very little skyglow. In Tombstone, Orion has 50 stars instead of the usual 10. Jupiter is directly overhead tonight, the brightest object in the sky on this moonless night.
- Ringo's Bar, 60 S. Tenth St.
This place, located across the street from Crazy Annie's, is owned by the mayor of Tombstone. It is named for Johnny Ringo (1850-1882), a notable outlaw cowboy of Cochise County. Unlike the other taverns, this one is located in a new building, meaning it was built in the twentieth century instead of the nineteenth. The bar is connected to the Depot Steakhouse, famous for its Sonora cuisine. Interesting objects displayed on Ringo's walls include a stuffed armadillo and a poster of Rafael's cherubs quaffing and puffing. There's also a "Justice is Coming" poster of a local 1993 movie starring Val Kilmer and Kurt Russell.
- Vogan's Alley, 487 E. Allen St.
This place started out as a bowling alley, opened in 1879 by Jim Vogan and Jim Flynn. A third Jim, James Earp (1841-1926), worked here from 1880 to 1881. The bowling lane is no longer in use, but the building is original. Vogan's (not to be confused with Vogons, which are evil) serves good fish sandwiches with lots of condiments. Recreation options include pool and darts, but not pinball. The most eye-catching distinction of of Vogan's is its huge collection of dollar bills taped to the walls and ceiling, each signed by a customer. Near the top of an ancient wooden beam framing the entrance to the pool room, there is a new dollar inscribed with these words: "Dinny was here, 30 January 2014."
Paul Terpstra, Springfield, Illinois
Updated February 28, 2014