Bill Hartley, in a mythic landscape
In Tombstone, none of the locals knew precisely where Contention City was. They’d all heard of it but even the otherwise helpful ladies at the information office were at a loss. In the sweltering heat of an Arizonan summer we set off to find the place. The general rule in Arizona would seem to be if it still has rooftops then it goes on the map, which is how we ended up at Fairbank marked as a settlement but in fact deserted. Fairbank, it turned out, was an old mining camp which had been preserved; the schoolhouse and some other buildings were there, dating from the late nineteenth century. We found a man cutting the grass who wasn’t much better informed than the people in Tombstone. He pointed us northwards but that was all the directions we received, plus advice to carry more water.
Contention City is a place that you may vaguely have heard of, which is interesting because as a settlement it didn’t even last a decade and this poses the question: how has the name become embedded in our culture? It was established in the early 1880s and had gone before the end of the decade. The town was thrown up in a hurry in the wake of the great silver strike which also put Tombstone on the map. As for its disappearance, historians tend to mark the demise of a boom town from when the post office closes and in the case of Contention City it went in 1888 with the last inhabitants moving out by 1890. The name though lives on and continues to appear in films, fiction and even music. It sounds interesting which helps. (There is another ghost town in south east Arizona called Shakespeare and in terms of posterity that was never going to work). The name incidentally comes from a dispute over a mining claim and when the matter was settled one of the parties commemorated this by naming his share Contention.
We set out along the remains of an old railroad track which traced a vague route through the mesquite. The temperature was in the high nineties fahrenheit and so the advice to carry more water was sound. This is largely featureless country, part of the San Pedro River flood plain, though even in what counts as the rainy season in Arizona there is very little moisture to be found. Because of the silver strike the area was once the location for intense mining activity. Two things made Contention City important and caused it to develop a symbiotic relationship with its better known neighbour ten miles to the south. Firstly, following its initial role as a stagecoach stopover it became the local rail link for Tombstone when the New Mexico and Arizona Railroad arrived in 1882. Secondly because of its proximity to the San Pedro River there was water available in industrial quantities. Tombstone sitting on much higher ground lacked a decent supply, which was necessary for running the stamp mills used to crush the ore brought from the mines. With all this going on, some optimistic journalists were predicting that Contention City would rival or even overtake Tombstone.
The abandoned railroad track remained just about discernible as we passed the ruins of the old stamp mill. This was built from stone up a steep slope designed to take advantage of gravity. Ore was brought here by mule train, a very inefficient method of beginning the next stage in the process of extracting the silver but in the 1880s there was no alternative. During the height of the boom the stamps were working round the clock with the noise said to be audible for miles around. Much of the mill was built from blocks of dressed sandstone rising high above the valley bottom and is likely to remain an impressive landmark, resisting the desert conditions as it has done for the past 130 years or so. Today the site is silent and home to snakes, lizards and a bat colony.
‘City’ is of course a rather grand term to denote a settlement which according to census returns had a population at its height of no more than two hundred. Despite this as was so often the case with towns in the Old West the settlement was mapped out optimistically with expansion in mind. According to the author Jeff Guinn, a typical boom town of the era might last between two and three years. Contention did a little better but the onset of its demise was rapid. First the railroad was extended south to Fairbank, shortening the distance to Tombstone. This meant that Contention’s role as the local railhead disappeared. Next was the discovery of water at Tombstone meaning that it was no longer necessary to haul ore all those miles to the Contention Mill. Very little record of daily life in Contention City remains. Only a few photographs are in the public domain and there is no civic archive to tell us what life was like there. Yet despite this the name lives on. In a strange way Contention City is more a place of the imagination.
Arriving at the San Pedro we found a totally dry section of river bed. Water flows through some parts though even in the driest weather care must be taken since a cloudburst in the mountains can rapidly produce a flash flood, something we experienced a few days later further north near Tucson. The dry river bed enabled us to get away from the mesquite and make a more rapid approach. In fairness there was scarcely anything for us to see and arguably this was a poor reward for a gruelling hike in fierce temperatures. That though wasn’t the point. Our aim was to reach a site whose name has transcended its brief existence.
Contention City inserted itself into Arizonan history, then via books and films went on to become a familiar name in the wider world. A great quote from a Western bridges the gap nicely: ‘when the legend becomes fact print the legend’. Contention City had its shootouts. It was also the place where the Earp family brought the body of their brother Morgan for shipment home, following his death in the bloody aftermath to the gunfight at the OK Corral. Beyond this we move into the realm of the imagination. Because so little is known of Contention City anything can be done with the place. In the original version of the film 3.10 To Yuma it is a collection of crude buildings. We get a glimpse of it as little more than a railroad halt in the 1993 film Tombstone but by the time of the 2007 remake of 3.10 it has grown into a substantial settlement with imposing buildings and a sense of permanence. Those few remains hidden in the mesquite of the Arizona back country have found a niche in our culture.
BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service and he writes from Yorkshire