A Little History of Tombstone

HELLDORADO 1929 - By Don Taylor

In 1929, Tombstone. Arizona had become a mere shell of the thriving city it once was. The silver mines had been closed since 1912. The small economic surge created by the need for lead and manganese during World War I had subsided. The notoriety achieved during the Wobblie deportation trials had past, and the impact of Frederick Bechdolt’s articles and books was waning. Yet thanks to historians of the day. the residents of Tombstone were beginning to see the potential of a new “industry” for their community, tourism. Walter Noble Burns’ Tombstone, An IIliad of the Southwest, along with Bechdolt’s works, had created a public interest in visiting the site so rich in the history of the Old West.

The community was also facing another crisis. Bisbee and Douglas were strong, prosperous copper- mining cities that coveted Tombstone’s designation as the Cochise County Seat. William Kelly, the editor of the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper, had been born and raised in Cochise County and he knew its history well. His father, George H. Kelly, had taken over the paper three years earlier, but by 1929 his focus was on his position as State Historian. William realized that this year would be. the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Tombstone, and he believed that the this occasion with an event grand glory days. He published this plan in the newspaper stating that by staging historic reenactments, bringing’ back pioneers of the day, exhibiting artifacts of the day against the backdrop of Tombstone, “the show will be Tombstone.”

Mayor Ray B. Krebs, an automobile salesman and later insurance salesman, recognized the “hook” Kelly described in his paper. He realized that such an extravaganza could restore the luster of Tombstone’s importance in and to Cochise County, and fend off the push to relocate the seat of county government. In June of 1929, he and the ,city Council unanimously approved Kelly’s proposal to spearhead the gala, with the Epitaph providing the funds in return for 60%’ of the profit. Krebs personally contributed $1,000.00 toward the event. Committees were formed to take charge of each aspect of the festival. In the, latter part of July, Mayor Krebs, ‘declared the third weekend in October to’ be the date of the celebration and named it “Helldorado”, a term coined by William MacLeod Raines. “Helldorado” was also part of the title of the autobiography of Billy Breakenridge, one of John Behan’s first deputies, which was published that same year.

With a date and a name, now the only thing left to do was to “set the stage”.

The Epitaph reported on September 12, 1929 that $l0,000.00 had been raised to restore the historic buildings back to their 1880’s stature. The article went on to say, “Colonel Billy Breakenridge of Tucson, John A. Rockfellow of Cochise Stronghold, William Lutley, C.L. Cummings, Jim Marrs and Mrs. G.W. Swain all of whom were residents of Tombstone in 1880” would assist the committee to insure authenticity in the restoration. September 13th was designated as the day to clean up the “dirt, dust and accumulated trash of nearly forty years” in the Bird Cage Theater. Three old-time shows each day were planned for the venerable structure. On September 19th the paper announced that Mrs. Nettie Vail, Ed Schieffelin’s niece, and Mrs. Gulrado, his sister, would be in attendance for the event.

The September 26th issue carried two important announcements about Helldorado. Mayor Krebs proclaimed, “The bootleggers, bad whiskey and drunks will be kept out of Tombstone so far as possible during Helldorado”, (the Crystal Palace Saloon had been restored, but the only beverages sold would be soda pop). He went on to say, that the Federal Prohibition Forces would be notified of the action. It was also publicized that Fox Movietone Newsreels had made arrangements to document the event with film and sound crews. A grand parade with John P. Clum, former mayor of Tombstone and founder of the Epitaph newspaper, along with Billy Breakenridge would lead the procession as honorary Mayors. The Yuma Indian Marching band was coming to play in the Helldorado parade. Locals practiced the famous fight on Fremont Street between the Earps, ‘Doc” Holliday and the “Cowboys”, Ike and Billy Clanton along with Frank and Tom McLaury. All of the preparations were being completed ahead of schedule. Those residents who were not performing, stayed busy making their own period costumes, and many of the men grew beards for the occasion.

The word spread of Tombstone’s magnificently planned party. The Pickwick Papers carried a story which includes this description, “Nowadays the town has slumped, due to the flooding of the mines that were its life and soul. But around October 24, Tombstone is going to re-awaken a few days of its old life --- minus the alcohol and murder, of course.” In a move similar to creating a modern-day website, the Southern Pacific Railroad printed 60,000 menus touting Helldorado, which it was estimated would be read by more than 300,000 people. Some 400 plus pioneers of Tombstone were invited to attend. The Arizona National Guard loaned the city 700 cots and blankets, and twenty five to thirty Pullman cars along with two to three dining cars were requested to “care for the hundreds of people from outside of Arizona who have already indicated their intention of seeing Helldorado.” On October 24, 1929. the headline of the Epitaph read. “WELCOME TO HELLDORADO.”

The gala event came off without a hitch. A grand time was had by all who attended. Unfortunately for Tombstone, the inaugural day of Helldorado, the stock market crashed. The glorious reviews of the daily activities could not offset the financial disaster that had struck the nation. Kelly and Krebs’ hopes for rejuvenating Tombstone’s economy through tourism never came to fruition as the nation spiraled into the Great Depression. Consequently, on November 19, 1929, the voters of Cochise County elected to move the County Seat to Bisbee. where it still resides today. Yet the importance of this moment in Tombstone’s history cannot be overlooked. Two men with a vision pulled an entire community together for the sake of their town. Regardless of the motives, economic or political, for 96 hours, Tombstone was again the jewel of the Old West mining towns, without the whiskey or murder, of course.

Story from “Old West Research and Publishing — Don Taylor I