Ghost Town Revival: Spirits of the West?

Enjoy this post from M.A. graduate student Jen Sundberg, who reflects on some of her research on the old West.

img_2821Ghost Town Revival: The Spirit of the West or the Spirits of the West?

Ghost towns dot the West. Strung across the mountains in Colorado, across the plains in the Dakotas and into the deserts of Arizona, these Ghost Towns have become exceedingly popular tourist attractions. Why though? What is it about these once bustling towns turned piles of wood that draws thousands yearly? Is it their rustic charm or their serene setting? Maybe it’s the thought that the very bar you are drinking your Sarsaparilla at in Tombstone, Arizona was the spot Doc Holliday once sat at, cane in hand, pistol in holster. What is it about these days-gone-by towns that are so intriguing?

When I first arrived in Tombstone, Arizona, I was filled with excitement. As a practicing historian, I couldn’t wait to walk the very streets that Victorian dresses had long ago brushed over, or walk into bars that had seen such murder and mayhem. Tombstone had long ago  been a bustling silver mining town. Ed Schieffelin, an Indian scout and prospector, swore he would find his fortune in Apache country, the area Tombstone now rests. Warned by his cohorts at Fort Huachuca that the only stone he would find would be his tombstone, Schieffelin accepted the risks and did indeed find his fortune. A town sprouted almost overnight and was rightfully named, Tombstone. Although I was itching to see it all- and see it all immediately- there was one place I was most excited to see. It was The Bird Cage Theatre. I had watched a handful of documentaries on the establishment and was incredibly intrigued with it.  I made it a mission to get to Arizona and walk through the doors of that old building. You could say I was ready to see it, I just didn’t know the emotion that would greet me, and not just my own emotion, but the emotion from someone that couldn’t be seen.

The Bird Cage Theatre opened its doors for the first time just one day after Christmas in 1881. For eight years, this establishment remained open twenty-four hours a day, year round. Yes, even on Christmas. The Bird Cage quickly established a reputation as the rowdiest spot in town. The New York Times once explained the Bird Cage as “the Wildest, Wickedest Night Spot, Between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast.”[1] This was no exaggeration as the Bird Cage witnessed twenty-six murders within its walls and the unfortunate death of one dog. To date, the bullet hole count in the walls, ceilings and floor are totals over 140. Mixing alcohol, poker and women was never a good thing in the “Wild West.” It was also host to the world’s longest poker game that ran for eight years, five months and three days straight! The buy in for the game was $1,000. Needless to say, these were not your average workers that sat playing this game. When someone failed, a runner would go out in town to pick up another individual willing to pay the price to get a hand in. Although this establishment had its reputation, it also had a reputation of splendor. The wallpaper that framed the walls were hand painted, the shows that graced its stage were some of the best in the West and the girls that entertained the men were said to be some of the most beautiful in town. Quite simply, the brothel/gambling hall/theatre/saloon did not disappoint its patrons. Unfortunately the fun came to an end in 1889. As the mines continued to flood, the town virtually shut down overnight. Groups of people left town, the owners of the Bird Cage decided to board up the windows and doors, leaving everything in its place, confident that they would all return in a couple of weeks. A couple of weeks turned to decades. Tombstone residents in the early twentieth century reported that no one dared walk by the Bird Cage, because when you did, you could hear yelling, laughter and glasses clinking. Seems the town shut down, but the old saloon never really did. It wasn’t until 1934; a group of Tombstone residents created a preservation team and decided to see what lay behind those big wooden doors. To their amazement, everything sat, just as it had been in 1889. It was a time capsule on a very grand scale. To this day, the establishment has remained virtually untouched and for the most part unaltered. A sight to be seen is an understatement.

Fast Forward to June of 2015. I walked through those big wooden doors that so many had done a hundred years ago. As I stood there taking in the scenery, tears began to well up in my eyes. I wondered why I was so emotional but I shrugged it off as a common case of “history nerd-itis.” I was completely lost within my happy place. It didn’t occur to me till that night that the emotion I felt was not only due to the love and passion I have always had for the West but also a direct link to those women who had plied their trade within these walls and suffered so.

That night, I took the ghost tour through the Bird Cage. Sure, we had some questionable things happen; yet I found myself almost mentally and emotionally removed from the crowd and concentrated in a world of the 1880s. I couldn’t help but to think of the women who worked tirelessly here. Then it began, that eerie feeling of someone watching you, following you. Then, the music. It came out of nowhere and everyone heard it. It was the sound of an organ playing an upbeat, Victorian tune.

The following months after my visit to the Bird Cage I did more research into the establishment and the town of Tombstone as well and it dawned on me. This is why people visit. Sure they visit for entertainment, for a fun trip, to see historic sites, but also to reconnect; reconnect to real people who lived, breathed, danced, smiled, cried or died in that very spot you sat. In a society so full of rapid change it is refreshing to dig through the past. And what makes these Ghost Towns the key place to find a reconnection? The spirits that have remained. The ones that witnessed the past, the only ones who can tell us the full story. We seek proof within them and pay money to catch a glimpse of them or to hear them say a few words that let us know they are still around. Day after day, the spirits revive these old dusty towns.  Society misses its past, and the spirits welcome us home when we visit.

[1] “The Bird Cage Theatre,” The Bird Cage Theatre, Accessed November 11, 2016, https://tombstonebirdcage.com.

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