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Tombstone, Arizona Provides Glimpse of Old American West

Tombstone, Arizona, in the southwestern U.S. offers a glimpse at America's old West where prospectors could become rich overnight and lawlessness and violence were a way of life. Today, this popular tourist destination recreates that bygone era for visitors from around the world. For producer Yi Suli, Elaine Lu has the story.

Tombstone got its name in 1877 after prospector Ed Shieffelin discovered rich veins of silver in the area. It was to mark the warning he received when he first ventured into the Arizona desert, that instead of silver, he was only going to find his own tombstone.

As people poured into Tombstone, mining camps, gambling houses, saloons and brothels sprang up overnight. By the early 1880s, the town was booming with almost 10,000 people. Joe Roberts, a local historian, told us, "The amount of activities that happened here in a short historical time period that was here is very tremendous. I mean at that time period this was the fastest growing boomtown in any of the mining towns in the U.S. Everybody from San Francisco to New York to Chicago knew all about Tombstone and everything that happened here."

Ben Traywick, another local historian, says at the height of its prosperity, Tombstone was a dangerous place. "Violence occurred in the streets, in front of buildings, bars and gambling houses and stuff like that. I have always said that Tombstone has four magical words: Tombstone, OK Corral, Earp, and Holiday. Without those four words and magic, this town would have crumbled into dust and blown away in the desert long time ago like all the other old mining towns."

Those words tell an old west tale of the violent frontier: It was a gun battle at the OK Corral where sheriff Wyatt Earp and his friend Doc Holiday confronted a group of local cowboys.

"Cowboys who didn't want to give up their guns, who were breaking the law. And you had the law here who were dedicated to imposing that law upon people and making them obey it. So they just came to the point they had to fight," Traywick said.

The gun battle left three cowboys dead and two others seriously injured. It later became known as the "Gunfight at the OK Corral."

A decade after that famous battle, the town of Tombstone saw its fortunes turn. The silver mines flooded and much of the population moved on. But it did not disappear. Today, the historic buildings have been restored and Wild West reenactments attract visitors from around the world.

Traywick adds, "It is sad to say when you look at all these graves, and you realize these people created history. And it was a time that was great in America. But it was a time that has come and gone and will never come back again."