Wanted! For crimes against American heritage: the town of Tombstone, Arizona

There's a new battle raging down at the OK Corral. But instead of the rivalry between Earps and Clantons, this fight involves a town's commercial future. Andrew Buncombe reports from Tombstone
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"I came here to live the American dream ... I wanted to see the past - dusty streets and horses. Instead the town has been commercialised," he said, ruefully.

This, needless to say, was not really Doc Holliday. The man dressed as Tombstone's most famous gunfighter was called Larry and he came from Brooklyn, New York. He had been bumped from several jobs as a Holliday impersonator and he was currently washing dishes in one of the town's restaurants. He dressed like the Doc partly for the benefit of the half-million tourists who come every year and partly because he liked to.

Unlike Larry, much of what the tourists get to see in "The Town Too Tough to Die" is genuine and dates from the mining community's heyday in the 1880s when it was the biggest city between St Louis and San Francisco. It has a splendid courthouse, historic saloons and, naturally, the famous corral where the bloody gunfight - from which the town has made its living ever since - took place in October 1881.

But increasingly, the genuine comes next to the fabricated. Owners of buildings built 50 years ago have painted on dates suggesting they were erected in the boom years, fake brickwork has been added to make buildings look older, while others have been decorated in garish paint that did not exist 125 years ago. Ghost tours chase spectres no one has ever heard of. Gunfights are re-enacted while faux marshals and good-time girls in bright garters wander around from dawn until dusk. You can't even enter the cemetery at Boothill without passing through a souvenir shop. In short, some people argue, Tombstone is turning into Disneyland.

A showdown is coming. Federal officials have warned the town that, unless it puts an end to the worst of its fakery, Tombstone will lose its status as a National Historic Landmark, a prestigious designation that has been afforded to places such as Alcatraz and Pearl Harbour.

"Some buildings have been altered in such a way that it's creating a very inauthentic appearance to the visiting public," said Greg Kendrick, a manager with the National Park Service, responsible for the designation. "It can be difficult in Tombstone to separate fact from legend."

He added: "I think the town is at a crossroads. It needs to decide whether it wants to do authentic heritage tourism or whether it wants to embellish things to try and attract visitors. A lot of towns in the West believe that most visitors to historic places want authenticity."

On the surface, much of the dispute gripping this town of just 1700 residents is being conducted in the academic language of architecture and historic preservation. Concern has been voiced about Spanish tiles, never originally used, on the roof of a store; a building painted chartreuse; lamps that did not exist in 1880; and window fittings that are not authentic.

But beyond this is a broader, more impassioned battle being fought for the town's future and for its soul. Some would like to see Tombstone kept as authentic as possible, while others say that, without the gun-fights and stagecoach rides, tourists would not come and the town would surely die. Scratch a little more and you discover that wrapped up with this is a nasty and vicious political dogfight matching the rivalry that once existed here between Earps and Clantons.

"They had politics back in the 1880s and they've still got it now. Things haven't changed in 120 years," said Sally Alves, a preservationist who runs Curly Bill's B&B. "Tombstone is becoming a Disneyland. If Tombstone turns into Disneyland we'll lose our uniqueness. That is why people come here."

Thanks to Hollywood and the efforts of Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston and, more recently, Val Kilmer, many people are familiar with the story of Tombstone and the gunfight between, on the one hand, Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and their friend Doc Holliday, and, on the other, the cowboy gang of Frank and Tom McLaury and Ike and Billy Clanton.

But not everyone realises that, prior to the late 1870s, the community was just a shanty town known as Goose Flats. That all changed when a prospector called Ed Schiefellin made what may be the second largest silver find in US history. Having been told that he would find nothing in the Arizona desert - populated by the Apache nation - other than his tombstone, the town that boomed around his claim could only have one name. The mines produced over a billion dollars worth of silver before they were closed by flooding.

Many of the buildings in Tombstone date from that era. In addition to the courthouse is a firehouse, the corral, the Bird Cage theatre, the Crystal Palace Saloon, the Oriental Saloon and Schiefellin Hall, among others. Indeed, most of the shops and stores on Allen Street date from the mining era. But some buildings have been better preserved than others. Standing outside the Crystal Palace, Hollis Cook, a local historian and former national park official, pointed out some of the fake and genuine elements to The Independent.

"See that building over there that says 1884," he said, pointing to a nearby restaurant. "Built in the Fifties. That other building there, painted teal? Terrible. Now, see that white building, the information centre? It's a former bank - completely genuine, even though it looks as if it's from a Hollywood film set."

Mr Cook believes it is essential that Tombstone opts for authenticity over the embellished, but he acknowledges the issue is not straightforward. Many visitors, he said, come to Tombstone with fixed expectations of what they will find and would be disappointed if they could not watch the re-enacted gunfights and ride in a stagecoach.

"The problem is, we are victims of our own success. We also have the same problem as places such as Dealey Plaza [in Dallas where President Kennedy was assassinated] in that people want to use history for their own purposes. That is the issue here."

Despite general support for preservation, others have another perspective over what the town should be. Business people argue that Tombstone is a living town, not a museum, and that they are simply trying to survive.

Susan Wallace, whose family own three businesses employing 70 people, has already agreed to remove the "1884" sign from her Longhorn restaurant. "We are working to get it back to the way it was," she told the Arizona Republic newspaper. "One thing to remember is that we are a living, breathing town. Each of these businesses is owned by a different group of people who have different ideas of what their businesses should look like."

The battle for the future is also being fought at a political level. Andre DeJournett, the mayor, was elected last November as a self-styled "visionary" who would implement changes recommended by officials and secure Tombstone's future. One of the first things he did was disband and then reform the town's Historic District Commission. But already Mr DeJournett is facing a recall vote, apparently organised by supporters of the previous mayor, Dusty Escapule, as well as something of a whispered smear campaign by people who say he is unfit for the job and that he drinks too much.

"The man is an idiot," said one store worker on Allen Street, who gave his name as Bill. "He's only been in Tombstone a few years and yet he thinks he knows everything about the town. I don't know how he got elected. The very first day it was eligible [to organise a recall] a petition was going around for people to sign."

The mayor's supporters say he is being turned on by business owners whose only interest is making money and who care little for the historic designation.

Mr DeJournett, an affable, red-faced man who runs the Dragoon Saloon, thinks Tombstone can have it both ways: it can be preserved and people can also make a living. "If we were a museum we would have created it perfectly, but we are a living town. What we should do is respect what we have. Those people who have led us off the track can pull it back together." Originally from Flint, Michigan, Mr DeJournett said his political opponents were members of a "good old boys" system. "They have had obligations owed to them," he said. "We don't need them anymore." In the short term, Tombstone's future may be decided by a meeting of town and federal officials in September in which historians will work with the mayor's office to try to ensure the town keeps its special status. Jean Sullivan, the director of Tombstone's Chamber of Commerce, said it was essential the landmark designation was retained to help attract tourists.

Meanwhile, the tourists keep on coming, delighted by the legend and largely oblivious to the battle being fought for its future. Outside the OK Corral, 71-year-old Emory Kirby explained that he had been born nearby but had moved to San Diego as a child. He had come back to visit with his wife, who was sitting on a bench further down the street.

Mr Emory was wearing a Stetson, cowboy clothes and a leather holster that carried a gleaming 1880s-style six-shooter. Two years ago he had been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy.

"I always wanted to walk the streets of Tombstone with my gun," he said innocently. "I think it's marvellous here. Anybody who cares about the West's history would love this town."

With that, he shook hands, turned round and headed off up the street, his boots echoing on the wooden boardwalks, looking every bit as though he belonged.