Located in the town of Tombstone, the historic Cochise County Courthouse was first built in 1882, only three years after the town was incorporated, and one year after Cochise County was formed. Constructed at the cost of $50,000 (the equivalent of approximately $1,240,000 in 2018), the construction of the courthouse was a fundamental part of why the people of the county elected to split off from Pima County, located far to the west. In addition to suffering from rampant crime and lawlessness, the town of Tombstone and Cochise County at large had no easy way for the resident miners to file claims, deeds, or other documents necessary to their trade. Prior to its construction, the nearest courthouse to Tombstone was nearly 70 miles away in Tucson: an unpleasant, potentially hazardous two-day ride through open desert and rocky, mountainous terrain.
Housing all of the county’s officials, including its treasurer, sheriff, and other law enforcement personnel, the courthouse was, relative to the other local buildings of the age, huge and imposing. One of the largest buildings in the Arizona Territory at the time of its construction, the courthouse was 76 feet wide at its wings, and 88 feet long. Befitting a town and county newly awash in mineral wealth, it was also one of the most elegant. A dignified, cross-shaped building in the Territorial Victorian style, the courthouse is constructed of red brick and white stone, with a pillared porch and balcony overlooking the entrance, gently pitched roofs, symmetrical windows, and a peaked, central lookout tower rising a story above the second floor.
A commanding presence in the otherwise chaotic and lawless town, the courthouse was instrumental in bringing order and rule of law to the region. In its time, the building acted as the headquarters of famous lawmen, like Sheriff Johnny Behan, infamous for his feud with the Earps, and ‘Texas’ John Slaughter, whose heavy hand scourged the county of outlaws. Its jail, too, at times held legends: Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday themselves slept a night behind its bars following the famous Shootout at the O. K. Corral, though they were soon exonerated, and the outlaws responsible for the infamous Bigbee Massacre were incarcerated there before finding their way into the history books when they became the first men to be (legally; one of their conspirators was dragged out of the jail and hanged from a telegraph pole by an angry mob a month prior) hanged in Tombstone.
In 1904, the county had an extension built onto the rear of the building, expanding the jail and courtroom, and lengthening the building to 116 feet. By then, Tombstone’s boomtown days were long gone, the silver mines that were the city’s lifeblood having variously been flooded, or dried up years prior, and its population slowly but surely contracted, having fewer than 700 citizens by the turn of the 19th century. Still, Tombstone held on, largely propped up by the courthouse and its status as the administrative center of the county.
In 1929, that status came to an end. The people of Cochise County elected to move the county seat to Bisbee, by then far larger than Tombstone, and still economically booming. A massive, Art Deco style courthouse was built there and finished by 1931, the same year that the last administrative official left Tombstone.
A sprawling, modern building, the Bisbee Courthouse serves Cochise County to this day. Trading in Wild West charm for modern amenities, this courthouse has never hosted legendary gunfighters, but is far better suited to the trials of the modern legal world.
As for the old Tombstone Courthouse, it stood empty for the better part of 30 years, until it was restored in the late 1950s, becoming a registered state park in 1959. Today, it continues to operate as a historical museum, and a window into Tombstone and Cochise County’s colorful frontier past.