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Fight on to save Tombstone Courthouse

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Fight on to save Tombstone Courthouse

  • Operating as a museum since 1959, the Tombstone Courthouse may be closed at the end of March.
    Giuseppe DeMasi/ArizonaNewsService.comOperating as a museum since 1959, the Tombstone Courthouse may be closed at the end of March.

Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park may face the hangman's noose on March 29 unless the city is able to save it.

The courthouse, in Cochise County, is one of 13 state parks slated for closure after the State Park Board's decision Jan. 15 to sweep $8.6 million from the parks' budgets.

However, Tombstone's mayor, council and Chamber of Commerce are fighting to keep open the 128-year-old courthouse, which offers tourists information on the Old West town, as steeped in myth as it is history.

"We want to find a way to make it happen, to keep it open, and I think (the State Parks Board members) do also," said Don Taylor, chamber president. "It's just a matter of making sure we are prepared, so that we can sit down and hash it out. We want to reach a resolution that will be beneficial to both Parks, and the City of Tombstone."

The courthouse's operating costs in fiscal year 2009 exceeded its income by $53,000, according to the parks board. If it's to remain open, the city will need to pay those operating costs.

Taylor said the city hopes to meet with board members in February to present a plan to keep the courthouse open.

The Arizona State Parks Board voted to keep nine parks open and close the remaining 13 state parks in a phased series of closures starting Feb. 22, according to information on the Arizona State Parks website. Parks closing Feb. 22 are Homolovi Ruins State Park in Winslow, Lyman Lake State Park in St. Johns and Riordan Mansion State Historic Park in Flagstaff.

The state's budget crisis has forced the board to close parks based on profitability instead of on what will benefit the communities near the parks, said Ellen Bilbrey, chief public information officer for Arizona State Parks.

"A park isn't meant to make money or lose money; a park is there to be an economic generator for the community," said Bilbrey. "That's what all the state parks are set up for, to get (tourists) out into rural areas."

Tourism brought in more than $7.2 million and 101 jobs to Cochise County in fiscal year 2007, according to a study on the economic impact of Arizona State Parks conducted by researchers at Northern Arizona University.

The loss of the courthouse is more than economic. In a town where cowboys walk the streets, gunfighters draw their weapons, and madams flirt around corners, it's easy to step into Tombstone and get lost in the lore.

"This place is really just a remarkable piece of Americana," said Taylor. "The courthouse tells that story in a tremendous way. It's a very important cog in the machinery of the history here, so that's why it's important to keep it open."

Built in 1882 at a cost of $50,000, the Tombstone Courthouse stands as a memorial to the history of the one-time mining boomtown. The courthouse is home to more than 14,000 artifacts, 1,600 photographs, as well as two attorneys' complete records.

The legal library and personal effects of former Justice of the Peace John F. Ross also remain part of the courthouse's collection. In addition to the larger collections, the courthouse also houses exhibits about Fort Huachuca, American Indians, the O.K. Corral, mining and life in the old West.

"Visitors from the world over have made the iconic venue a central part of their time in Tombstone," said Frederick Schoemehl, editor of the Tombstone Epitaph National Edition, a historical journal. "It is a sad and sorry state of affairs when a decision is made to close a facility so central to Western history."

Park Ranger Art Austin describes the records and artifacts held by the courthouse as the collective memory of the first community in Southern Arizona. Tombstone served as the county seat and housed the sheriff, recorder, treasurer and board of supervisors in its heyday. Executions were also carried out at the courthouse until 1912.

The courthouse does more than just offer an alternative to Tombstone's kitsch.

Researchers interested in Tombstone or Cochise County can easily access the collections. Some of the documents held by the courthouse were created by the county and are therefore subject to freedom of information laws. Additionally, many of the other documents are old enough that they are no longer subject to attorney-client privilege or other protections. Records such as an 1880s tax assessment ledger or original editions of the Tombstone Epitaph provide rich detail into the activities of the time. Claim maps also give detailed perspective into the silver mining origins of the town.

Ben Traywick is a Tombstone historian and author who regularly uses the resources of the courthouse.

"I just wrote a story about Chandler Milk Ranch and all the photographs and all the information came out of the courthouse," Traywick said. "They have an enormous amount of information about Tombstone, and the county, and it's a shame to see it go because it's very good research."

But it's more than just what is inside the Tombstone Courthouse that would be lost if it closes, says Bilbrey.

"If you look just at these parks and all the jobs statewide that are being affected, and then you look at the economic impact on these communities, what good does it do to have stimulus money if you can't keep parks open so that these communities can keep all these people in their jobs?"

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