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Southwest Series Photo, Writing, and Blogging Prompts by Chris Dunmire
Writing Prompts : Southwest Series : Tombstone, Arizona

Southwest Series Photo Writing Prompts

Tombstone, Arizona

By Chris Dunmire

Founded in 1879 and tagged "The Town Too Tough to Die", Tombstone, Arizona, is known for its lawmen and outlaws, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the Birdcage Theater, Boot Hill, and being a famous mining boom town in the Old West.

Tombstone, Arizona, Photo © 2007 Chris DunmireSituated in southern Arizona miles from the Mexico border, Tombstone has been scandalized, glamorized, and Hollywoodized, and still stands today rich with history and thriving tourism. Taking in Tombstone's famous landmarks, desert scenery, and ghosts of the past, one can be inspired by its sights and sounds, dusty streets, reenactments, and tours through its museum-eque buildings once bustling with business, gambling, and entertainment for ranchers, cowboys, miners and other townsfolk.

Tombstone's Web site notes, "Many of Tombstone's historic buildings are within an area bounded by Fremont, 6th, Toughnut and 3rd streets. Among them are St. Paul's Episcopal Church, built in 1882; the Crystal Palace Saloon, one of the most luxurious saloons in the West; and the Tombstone Epitaph building, where the oldest continuously published paper in Arizona is still being printed."

What will this old western town prompt in you?

Tombstone, Arizona, Photo © 2007 Chris Dunmire

Writing Prompt 1:

A living snapshot of the Old West. This is a view down Tombstone's Allen Street where the Crystal Palace Saloon, Silver Nugget, and Bird Cage Theater can be found. Today the street is buzzing with seasonal tourists, but at one time was a bustling boom town.

According to Wikipedia,"Tombstone was a city of 1000 by the beginning of 1881, and within another year Tombstone had become the county seat of a new county (Cochise County) with a population between 5,000 and 15,000." After the silver mines were picked clean, the people moved on and Tombstone became a ghost town. In 1929 the county seat was moved to Bisbee.

This photo captures the essence of what Tombstone became after its thriving heyday. Empty, quiet, deserted. What if you were a business owner who relocated to Tombstone and suddenly the majority of the townspeople moved on? What would you do? Where would you go? What would your story be?

Tombstone, Arizona, Photo © 2007 Chris Dunmire

Writing Prompt 2:

This special edition of The Tombstone Epitaph discusses the life of Wyatt Earp (1848-1929), the name closely associated with the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral. Though he's had many different jobs throughout his life (including saloon-keeper, gambler, and miner), Earp was a lawman in several Western frontier towns including Tombstone.

It is noteworthy how Earp is canonized in history by the notorious events that took place in Tombstone. His character has been portrayed in movies, TV shows, books, and biographies by others capitalizing on the stereotype of the "gun slinging lawman."

Think about your life. How would someone canonize you in history? How do you want to be remembered? What do you think Earp's memoirs would reveal about the totality of his life, in which his years in Tombstone were just "a slice of the pie"? What defines us? Who defines us? Is either true?

Tombstone, Arizona, Photo © 2007 Chris Dunmire

Writing Prompt 3:

Before automobiles came on the scene, the popular way to travel around Tombstone and from town-to-town was on horseback or in stagecoaches similar to the one you see here.

Imagine yourself as a passenger in a stagecoach in the Old West traveling a five-mile distance from one town to another in the hot, dry summer. Remember, stagecoaches don't move as fast as cars do. Describe how you feel, what you see around you, and your anticipated arrival to your destination. Where are you headed? What is your business there?

Tombstone, Arizona, Photo © 2007 Chris Dunmire

Writing Prompt 4:

TV, radio, and the Internet didn't exist back in the Old West. So after a hard day's work, drinking and gambling were among the most popular past times in Tombstone.

Pictured here is an actual gambling table used in the poker room of the famous Bird Cage Theater, were the longest poker game in western history was said to happen. According to the Theater, "It was a house game and players had to buy a $1,000 minimum in chips for a seat in the game. The game ran continually for 8 years, 5 months and 3 days. Today that poker table still stands as it was left, with its chairs on the dirt floor."

What do you think it was like being a player of that long-running game? Do you think poker games back then were just about winning money, or was some other type of honor at stake? Would you have played if you knew the potential for a gunfight — and possibly death — could have occurred?

Tombstone, Arizona, Photo © 2007 Chris Dunmire

Writing Prompt 5:

The infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral happened in Tombstone on October 26, 1881. The "Law" consisting of brothers Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, and Doc Holliday battled it out with a gang of "Outlaws" resulting in the deaths of Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury, and Frank McLaury.

This historical gunfight unfolded in only minutes, but the symbolism of event has endured for over a century. Wikipedia notes:

"The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was a gunfight that has been portrayed in numerous Western films. It has come to symbolize the struggle between law-and-order and open-banditry and rustling in frontier towns of the Old West where law enforcement was often thin, and where some of the urban-vs.-rural and North-vs.-South tensions of the American Civil War were still very much active."

What events have unfolded in your lifetime that could be considered equally symbolic? What lessons are in them for us? What can future generations learn from these events?

Tombstone, Arizona, Photo © 2007 Chris Dunmire

Writing Prompt 6:

This picture shows the grave markers of Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers in Tombstone's famous graveyard, Boot Hill. Regarding Boot Hill, Wikipedia notes, "

"Tombstone is home to perhaps the most famous graveyard of the Old West, Boot Hill. Buried at the site are various victims of violence and disease in Tombstone's early years, including those from the O.K. Corral. Boot Hill (also known as the old city cemetery) was also the destination for bad-men and those lynched or legally hanged in Tombstone."

Notice the large stones covering the tops of the graves. Graves in the desert were dug shallow because the ground was hard and dry. A walk through Boot Hill reveals rows and rows of graves like this (over 250), much different from traditional cemeteries and memorial parks today.

The concepts of life and death are vast and far-reaching. Whatever this brings up in you, write about it. Be honest, curious, emotional — this topic is open to wherever you wish to go.

Tombstone, Arizona, Photo © 2007 Chris Dunmire

Writing Prompt 7:

This is the famous Bird Cage Theater which had its heyday between 1881 and 1889. According to the Theater, "The New York Times referred to it in 1882 as the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast." And, "In 9 years this lusty-den of iniquity never closed its doors 24 hours a day." It was the site of 16 gunfights and still has bullet holes in the ceilings and walls.

Fixed inside the Bird Cage Theater is a stage for entertainers, a gambling casino and dance hall, and 14 bird cage crib compartments suspended from the ceiling where "soiled doves" or ladies of the night plied their trade to willing customers.

Can you imagine what life was like for those who worked for this establishment? The bartenders, entertainers, painted ladies? Was the essence of business and survival really different back then than it is now? (See also: Birdcage Theatre Prompts)

Tombstone, Arizona, Photo © 2007 Chris Dunmire

Writing Prompt 8:

This is the stage inside the Bird Cage Theater, where famous and not-so-famous headliners entertained. Compared to many playhouse stages and concert halls of today, this stage was relatively small, but yet boasted big acts such as Eddie Foy and Lotta Crabree.

Imagine you are an entertainer in the late 1800s performing on this stage. Indulge your creativity. Are you a singer, dancer, musician, performer, poet, or comedian? Describe your act. How does the audience react? What is your next destination, location-wise or creatively? Write your professional biography. •

© 2007 Chris Dunmire. All rights reserved.

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Updated 1/14/14