A young boy in cowboy costume performs a toy gun trick

Every day is a Wild West costume party in this town

Historic reenactors, frontier architecture, and mock cowboy shootouts make a visit to Tombstone, Arizona, feel like time travel.

Jesse Forbes, 11, demonstrates his pistol spinning during the 2016 Vigilante Days festival in Tombstone, Arizona. The frontier town—made infamous by the shootout at the O.K. Corral in 1881—inspires visitors and locals to dress up in Old West garb.

A woman in a bustled, Victorian-style dress pauses on Allen Street, the historic main drag of Tombstone, Arizona, site of the notorious gunfight at the O.K. Corral. A few seconds later, a man in an old-timey marshal’s outfit clanks by on the wooden plank sidewalk, spurs rattling. Tourists lift their smartphones and shoot the action.

Tombstone sits amid the grasslands and foothills of the Dragoon Mountains about 70 miles southeast of Tucson. Western false-front buildings line its six-block historic area where travelers can hop scarlet-colored horse-drawn stagecoaches to reach sights including the bawdy Birdcage Theater and Wyatt Earp’s Oriental Saloon, with its costumed cowboy show.

The scene draws fans of the Wild West, many of them dressed like it’s 1882, not 2022. Some days, up to 20 percent of the people in Tombstone’s historic zone are decked out in 19th-century-style clothing. Most of the frock coats and crinolines are worn by saloon bartenders or professional actors. But a sizable number of locals and visitors also get gussied up just for fun, inspired by the lore and livery of the Old West. 

It’s not quite cosplay, which involves impersonating a specific character. Instead, it’s a kind of freeform historical reenactment—and everyone is invited. 

Here’s how to experience Tombstone’s rough-and-tumble charm, and why it’s such a costume party.

From gunfights to tourist sights

The freewheeling spirit of today’s Tombstone recalls its boom era, after an 1877 silver strike made it the fastest-growing city between St. Louis and San Francisco. It had the usual saloons and brothels, but it also possessed wealth and sophistication that fostered theaters, a debating club, and roller rinks where young Victorian couples canoodled on skates.

Where money, power, and frontier justice collide, trouble often follows. The O.K. Corral conflict occurred during the bloodiest stretch of gunfights in Western history. Tombstone was made infamous by the 1881 shootout between cattle-rustling cowboys and profiteering lawmen, including the Earp brothers and John “Doc” Holliday. In less than a minute, three men died and one of the Wild West’s most potent legends was born. 

The area’s fortunes changed in the early 20th century after the silver mines closed, when Tombstone seemed destined to become a ghost town. But during the tourism boom that followed World War II, Tombstone began to embrace its cowboy mythology, reopening saloons, museums, and creating other attractions. Many businesses were staffed with faux gamblers and saloon dancers in colorful (if not always authentic) costumes. Ever since, tourism has been the town’s biggest industry and employer. 

Enterprise and exuberance can create tension. The National Park Service 
designated Tombstone’s downtown a national historic landmark in 1961, when it ranked among the nation’s best-preserved frontier communities. Just two years later, a parks inspector flagged “rampant huckstering” that was “rapidly ruining the integrity of this fine site.” 

(See why the Wild West lives on in this Spanish town.)

In the early 2000s, Tombstone almost lost its landmark status when the U.S. Department of the Interior called it out for historical inaccuracies. Business owners had distressed buildings to make them look older, labeled contemporary structures with 19th-century dates, and painted structures in inauthentic colors.

These days, tourists roll into Tombstone to see attractions including the circa-1878 Goodenough Silver Mine and the Boothill Graveyard (recreated after a stint as the town dump). History buffs gravitate to the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park, a red-brick Victorian edifice turned city museum.

A reconstruction of the O.K. Corral hosts three mock gunfights a day. Actors playing lawmen sport swooping mustaches and natty black dusters; the cowboy outlaws wear chaps and wide-brimmed hats.

Old West dress up

Tombstone two-steps between accurate historic interpretation (the courthouse’s replica gallows) and campy spins on the Wild West, such as a zipline where modern gunslingers shoot targets with laser pistols.

For many residents and tourists, appreciating the town’s past means putting on Old West-inspired costumes. On weekends, the unpaved pedestrian stretch of Allen Street can resemble a frontier fashion show.

“Playing at the West has been popular for nearly 140 years,” says Betsy Gaines Quammen, a historian and author of the upcoming book, True West: Sorting Realities on the Far Side of America. “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show drew huge audiences when it launched in 1883. I just think it’s important to understand that the idea of the ‘Wild West’ is based on a myth.”

Most of the reenactors tap into Western archetypes: cowboys, lawmen, prospectors, pioneer women. Retiree Cole Clayton, who moved to Tombstone to join its reenactment scene, often spends a full day walking around town impersonating a robber baron (string tie, ruffled shirt) or a grizzled gunslinger (leather vest, big hat). “It’s a fantasyland—people get dressed up every day,” he says. “I meet all the tourists, say ‘hi,’ then do it again the next day.”

Others, including Charles Hancock, reveal lesser-known parts of U.S. history. In his sackcloth coat, cavalry boots, and campaign hat, he interprets a Buffalo Soldier, a member of one of the Black military regiments organized in 1866, shortly after the Civil War. “We collect as much information as we can to tell the story of their accomplishments,” Hancock says.

Like Civil War enthusiasts on the U.S. East Coast, many of these reenactors go to great lengths to factually portray the past. Some craft their own costumes from period-accurate calicos or patterns taken from deconstructed antique garments. As Linda Penn, a reenactor and accomplished seamstress, says: “We try to go back in time and represent it as close as we can. We strive for authenticity.” Others suit up with replica Old West garb from stores including Spur Western Wear, Tombstone Antique Mall and Vintage Cowgirls of Tombstone.

Often, what the enthusiasts wear looks nothing like a scene from Deadwood or Once Upon a Time in the West. “Dresses were never low-necked until after 5 p.m.,” says reenactor and milliner Sunny Quatchon (who favors bustled gowns and feathered hats herself). “During the day, even ladies of the night were buttoned up.”

Those lace-up corsets worn by some saloon employees or people posing at the town’s many old-time photo studios? They were never seen outside of the boudoir. Quatchon explains they went underneath women’s clothing, not on top, as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in Hollywood Westerns.

Where to spot time travelers

Some costumed time travelers stroll around Tombstone every day. But you’ll increase your chances of an encounter or photo op by visiting on the second or fourth Sunday of the month, when members of the Vigilletes and Vigilantes reenactor groups congregate along Allen Street. Folks in historic garb also turn out for annual events including Wyatt Earp Days in May and Helldorado Days in October.

(See how historic interpreters are changing the conversation about race.)

Visitors can head to St. Paul’s Episcopal on any Sunday, when many parishioners attend the Gothic Revival adobe church in Wild West getups. Wyatt Earp helped to fund the 1882 structure with money he got from shaking down card dealers in his own saloon. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, it still has its original Belgian stained-glass windows and thick roof beams trundled down from the Chiricahua Mountains by oxcart. Behind it, a historic cottage holds a small exhibit on 19th-century women’s clothing.

On her regular weekend visits from nearby Tucson, Penn makes a point to attend the services at St. Paul’s. On a recent Sunday, she found herself amid 40 other worshippers in Victorian- or Edwardian-style attire. “It was a glorious experience,“ she says. “We obviously pretend to be in that timeframe. But when we were all together, it felt real to me.”

Amanda Castleman is a Seattle-based writer. Follow her on Twitter.

Read This Next

Is your favorite ‘green’ product really eco-friendly?
Why Noah’s Ark will never be found
The 10 best compact cameras, according to Nat Geo

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet