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With fascinating ghost towns, Wild West districts and ornate Victorian mansions, Arizona is a history buff’s nirvana. These are the state’s very best town to visit for exploring history.
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This historic mining town turned funky artists’ haven with creative works of art found around nearly every corner, is tucked within the Mule Mountain. It has an especially rich history, lots of quirky character, and, it’s also known as one of the most haunted towns in America. USA TODAY ranked it America’s No. 1 historic town, noting that “Bisbee’s appeal lies in its Victorian architecture, pretty scenery and laid-back vibe, and the Smithsonian-affiliated Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum does an excellent job of recounting the town’s colorful history.” Be sure to take the Queen Mine Tour, where you’ll don a hard hat and ride on an ore track into an underground mine that was operating as late as 1975 – your guide will tell you what difficult work miners endured there beginning in the late 1880s.
For anyone interested in history and the paranormal, the Old Bisbee Ghost Tour is a must too, you’ll hear haunting tales, some of which involve the legendary Bisbee Grand, purported to have a number of resident ghosts, like the female spirit described as wearing a Victorian-style dress, carrying a tea tray and sometimes even standing at the foot of the bed in Room 2 or 3. The usually silent piano even occasionally starts playing a few notes on its own when all is quiet and few are around.
Jerome, founded in the late 19th century on Cleopatra Hill overlooking Verde Valley, once boomed with 15,000 people, mostly made up of those who were looking to strike it rich. Its heyday was supported by rich cooper mines that made it once the fifth largest town in Arizona. The depression marked the end of the good times, with the mines finally closing in the early 1950s. Re-opening it as America’s largest ghost city arguably saved it from complete extinction. Today, Jerome is a state park with a population just over 400. Small shops line the streets along with ruins from its past, like the famous traveling jail. You’ll also find actors and historians wandering the streets, recreating the town’s glory days.
Ruby is a mining camp started back in the 1870s when a rich vein of silver was discovered. Located about 50 miles southwest of Tucson and just four miles north of the Mexican border, it’s surrounded by the Coronado National Forest in an area filled with an abundance of wildlife, rugged mountains, and semi-arid deserts. Ruby offers a fascinating glimpse at history around the turn-of-the-century in a mining camp, as the mining company left behind equipment and buildings that supported the operation of Montana Mine, which closed in 1940. The miners and their families left behind their one-room school, the playground, a mercantile and their vision of everyday life.
This small border town has more than 100 years of rich history with a number of interesting places to visit, including Hotel Gadsden, which sits at its center. One of the southwest’s most legendary hotels, it dates back to 1907 and hosts a gorgeous Italian marble lobby and a magnificent Tiffany stained glass window. It’s also home to the Grand Theatre, an impressive Beaux Arts-style theater once considered the grand dame of the region, playing host to vaudeville acts and performances by the likes of Ginger Rogers, Al Jolson and a number of the period’s other finest musicians and entertainers. Douglas also hosts the first international airport in the country, During the Second World War, pilots were trained at the Bisbee/Douglas Airfield for future combat missions. Amelia Earhardt was one of many famous aviators to fly to Douglas during a cross-country trip. Today, visitors can check out the air museum which showcases a collection of aeronautical photos, a custom airplane, and other aviation memorabilia.
Once a wild-west frontier town known as the town “too tough to die,” Tombstone is a great place to relive the days of the Old West as the spot where the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place in 1881 – a 30-second gunfight pitting the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday against Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers. If you don’t recall who won, find out more by paying a visit yourself. You can almost hear the gunfire, the sounds of the saloons and the buckboards clip-clopping down the dirt streets. If you want to find out more about the real history of Tombstone instead of just the tourist version, make a reservation for Dr. Jay’s Walking Tour. And, for an even more exciting visit, try to be here during Wyatt Earp Days, Vigilante Days or Hellodorado Days take place to see the vigilantes and vigilettes recreate the Old West in the middle of Allen Street.
The oldest continuously inhabited village in the country, Oraibi is a prime example of an Arizona historic village. It was established over 1,000 years ago, around 900 to 1000 AD. Because of its isolation, the village has managed to resist and avoid much in the way of modern developments. Hopi families still live here, but the residents are very private, which means it’s better to forget about your camera, and instead talk to the Hopi people who you’ll see selling collectible arts and crafts like pottery, baskets and Kachina dolls. Your reward will be a rare look into this well-preserved culture that outsiders almost never get to experience. Be sure to taste the traditional piki bread, made using a piki stone that’s passed down from mother to daughter for generations. You can also see the ruins of an old, 1629 Spanish mission, which stands out in contrast to the old stone and newer cinder block houses.
Pearce is another old mining town that was once home to a population of around 1,500 in the early part of the 20th century but was ultimately g abandoned in the 1940s. Lying in the picturesque Sulphur Springs Valley between Douglas and Willcox, it was one of Arizona’s major silver producers between 1895 to 1942. It’s home to two properties on the National Register of Historic Places, the 1896 Old Pearce General Store and Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church, circa 1916. A number of other historic adobe and frame structures, some of which are intact, and others in ruins, are scattered throughout this now ghost town.
Visiting the Yuma Territorial Prison is a must for any history enthusiast who will be in or near Yuma. This living museum of the Old West provides a glimpse of convict life in the Southwest 100 years ago, as the spot where over 3,000 desperadoes, convicted of crimes ranging from polygamy to murder, were imprisoned in rock and adobe cells here during the prison’s 33-year existence between 1876 and 1909. The cells, main gate, and a guard tower are all still standing. The entrance of the famous prison was shown in many western movies, with the bad guys ending up going in or coming out the main gate. Closed since 1909, the prison is now run as a state historical park.
Oatman is another former mining town that offers the chance for visitors to experience the Old West as pictured in so many cowboy films. While it’s a ghost town, in recent years it’s taken on new life as a popular tourist attraction. Wild donkeys roam the streets in search of “treats,” the carrots that are purchased from one of the numerous carrot stands, and a number of the town’s original buildings remain, most notably the Oatman Hotel, the same hotel where Clark Gable and Carol Lombard spent their wedding night. While it’s no longer in use, the room where the Hollywood stars stayed is on the second floor, with their portraits hanging over the bed, looking like it did when they were here back in 1939. The hotel is also considered a paranormal hot spot with a resident ghost known as “Oatie.” Visitors can also visit the Dollar Bill Saloon, where dollar bills cover its walls and ceilings and watch the Wild West reenactment gun show that’s held in the middle of the street right out in front.