Nogales to Tombstone

JANUARY 31, 2024: We woke up to a beautiful sunny day at the De Anza Trails RV resort in Arizona, about halfway between Tucson and Nogales. At the resort, every Wednesday morning at 9:00 AM, they have free coffee and doughnuts in the community room. A nice way to start the day. We showed up a few minutes after 9:00, and the room was already full of older people who obviously all knew each other. I had been expecting doughnuts like from Dunkin Doughnuts, but they served small, homemade ones instead. Delicious. It was someone’s birthday; everyone sang Happy Birthday and someone brought out a cake. There was a strong feeling of community amongst the crowd.

After breakfast, we left the RV resort and continued our way south towards Mexico, to the town of Nogales. Nogales is on the border, with a small part of the town in the USA and a larger part in Mexico. A border crossing connects the two.

In 1880, Jewish Russian immigrant Jacob Isaacson built a trading post at present-day Nogales, on the American side of the border. Isaacson, a man of vision, was drawn to the place because he anticipated the business opportunities that would arise when in the following year, the Santa Fe railroad would connect to the Mexican rail system at this location. In 1883, the U.S. Postal Service opened the Isaacson post office but eventually renamed it as Nogales. The name Nogales comes from the Spanish word “walnut” since walnut trees once grew abundantly in the area. Isaacson is credited with the city’s founding and today there is a plaque in the center of town in his honor.

Although small in number (about 75 people in its heyday), Jewish families in Nogales had a big impact on the town. Over the years, they played important roles in business (especially retail), government and social services. For example, Hyman Capin, a Lithuanian Jew born in 1874, started a retail empire in Nogales and was one of several prominent Jewish merchants in the city’s early history. Charley Bracker served on the school board in the ’30s and Bobby Bracker, served on the Nogales city council for 12 years in the ’70s and ’80s. Over the years, the community dwindled and in 2014, only 15 Jewish residents still lived in Nogales. I am not sure how many of them are still there today.

The Jews of Nogales have their own section in the main city cemetery. This is a large municipal cemetery, divided into many parts. After driving around, we finally found the Jewish section – the only section that was fenced off and locked. It was recognizable by the Jewish star carved in the rock that looked down on the graves. It seemed well maintained. The headstones were all lying in the grass, and we could not really see nor read the names on them.

From there we continued northeast towards Tombstone, our destination for the night. We drove on Arizona State Route 82, also known as the Patagonia-Sonoita Scenic Road. Beautiful desert landscapes the whole way.

At one point, while enjoying the scenery, a wild medium-sized, hairy, gray animal with a snouted nose, quickly crossed the road in front of us. Trailing behind it were two little offspring. They looked very much like the wild pigs in Israel. Turns out they are not pigs; they are not even in the swine family. They are called Javelinas (also known as a Collared Peccary) and biologically resemble sheep and goat more than pigs. They live in the Southwest USA, are herbivores feeding on prickly pear pads and mesquite beans. Each one has a snouted nose that is slightly different than all others – like a fingerprint. The species of Javelina that lives in this area chew their cud and have split hooves, thus making them kosher to eat. Another difference from pigs.

I was not quick enough to capture a photo with my camera, but this is a picture of a Javelina from the internet.

Tombstone is a popular tourist destination, being one of the best-preserved frontier towns of the 1870’s and ’80s. The historical center is full of gift shops, restaurants, taverns, etc., often in original buildings. The main road is dirt, not paved, like in the olden days.  Cowboys walk the streets. Town tours are available in either horse-drawn carriages or trolley cars.

On the outskirts of town, is the Boothill Graveyard, our first destination. This is a restored cemetery with 260 graves that was used from 1879 to 1884. The name Boothill alludes to the fact that many of its occupants “died with their boots on,” implying they died violently, as in gunfights or by hanging, and not of natural causes. After paying an entrance fee (everything in Tombstone has an admission fee), you receive a booklet with the stories of some of the people buried there.

Inside the cemetery, a Jewish memorial was erected in 1984. To reach the memorial, from the main burial ground, you walk down a gravel path and reach a fenced-in area. This separate section was set aside for Jewish burials and today, in its center, is a memorial dedicated to the Jewish Pioneers and their Indian Friends. The monument is made of rocks gathered from the mountains of Arizona.

As you exit the cemetery, you pass through the gift shop (of course). When we were on the nature hike in Tucson Mountain Park yesterday, we were impressed by the other woman on the hike because she knew the names of all the cacti we saw. She said it was because she made a puzzle with pictures of cacti and their names. We found what we think is the same puzzle in this gift shop, and now I too have a 1000-piece puzzle with all the cacti and their names.

In 1877, the city of Tombstone was founded by Ed Schieffelin. He was part of an army mission against the local Apache Indians. Ed would leave camp to prospect for minerals in the wilderness even though his fellow soldiers warned him not to. They said “The only stone you will find out there will be your own tombstone“. Fortunately for Ed, he did find something: silver ore. Heeding the words of his fellow soldiers, he named the mine Tombstone.

Word quickly spread about Ed’s silver strike. Tombstone became the fastest growing boomtown in the American Southwest, with homesteaders, cowboys, speculators, prospectors, lawyers, and businessmen all headed to the area. The population increased to about 15,000 in the mid-1880s. Tombstone had more than 100 saloons, a multitude of eateries, a huge red-light district, an opera house, newspapers, churches, schools, and even a community swimming pool.

After several years, the silver mine hit the water table. Expensive pumps were installed to remove the water and continue with the mining. As the mines deepened, controlling the water became more cumbersome and the quality of the silver declined. One by one, the mines were forced to shut down or declare bankruptcy as they ran out of usable ore. By the end of 1893, all silver production in Tombstone was halted and the mines abandoned. The city nearly became a ghost town.

Tombstone today has about 1500 residents, with tourism as its main source of income.

To learn more about silver mining, we took a tour of the Good Enough Mine, one of the twenty-five silver producing mines that operated in the Tombstone Mining District. This was a 45-minute tour underground, inside what was once Tombstone’s most lucrative mine. We entered the mine, not through the original entrance, but through a newer entrance.  The mines here were reopened in World War I for manganese for gun powder, and World War II for lead for bullets, and a new less perilous entrance was made then.  Wearing hard hats, the tour guide led us down 100 feet on stairs and ramps and told us the history of the mine and of the town. The mine has miles of passageways on different levels. We saw actual pieces of silver still embedded in the rock. At one point the tour guide turned off all the lights in the mine and lit a few candles, to give us a better feeling of the conditions that working in the mine entailed. The circumstances were hazardous, but the miners were well paid for their dangerous and difficult work.

Returning to the campground after the tour, while walking down the main street, we passed the O.K. Corral. Here in Tombstone was the location of the most famous gunfight in the history of the American Old West – a fight that has been immortalized in several books and movies. In 1881, four lawmen, led by Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp fought five outlaws, known as the Cowboys. The gunfight lasted less than a minute and resulted in the death of three of the Cowboys – Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury and his brother Frank McLaury. All three are buried in the Boothill Cemetery. Today you can watch a reenactment of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Next, we stumbled upon the Sarsaparilla Emporium, a store selling “The Best Root Beer in the West”. The old cowboy at the counter explained this his root beer is the original – the flavor coming from the sassafras plant. Once you taste his, you will never drink any other root beer again. I do like root beer and purchased a bottle – the cold beverage was delicious.

When we returned to the motorhome, I looked at the ingredients on the label and began to wonder how much of his story was true.  The only ingredients listed were water, sugar, and flavorings. Researching the internet caused further confusion.  I learned that there are two similar but distinct beverages – Root Beer and Sarsaparilla. Both were first made by the Native Americans. Root Beer was made from the roots of the sassafras tree and Sarsaparilla was made from the sarsaparilla vine. Today, root beer recipes cannot include sassafras as the plant has been found to cause serious health issues and was banned by the FDA in 1960. Was the old cowboy selling Sarsaparilla and calling it Root Beer? Or was he using banned sassafras? Was it perhaps just his label on a generic product?  Seems like there might still be outlaws in Tombstone…

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  1. Any idea about the story of the Jews and their Indian friends and why the two are grouped together?