On a sweltering June afternoon with a friend in tow, I have a mission: to investigate Fairbank, a historic townsite located 10 miles west of Tombstone along Highway 82.
At first glance, there's not much to this town but a few shabby wooden shacks, some scraggly green brush, dirt, an unforgiving sun and a bunch of flies. It seems like a ghost town.
But with further probing, I realize that it's not.
"Ghost town means that no one lives there," says Amy Sobiech, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management. "(Fairbank) has caretakers who live there on the property year-round."
Ghost towns are not on federal land, and aren't protected by the BLM. And not having this protection has it costs. "In ghost towns, yahoos steal and take artifacts that tell the towns' stories, and then you can't tell that story anymore," she says. Illegal digging and collecting of any artifacts from federal land is a criminal offense.
Despite these distinctions, I can't help but romanticize the town a bit. As my cowgirl boots kick up dirt, which sticks to my sunscreen like glitter on glue, I try to imagine what this town was like during the Wild West era. I try to imagine myself as one of its residents, strutting around in my petticoats on my way to the general store.
Located on the San Pedro River, Fairbank began in 1881 with the construction of the New Mexico and Arizona Railroad. Named after Nathaniel Kellogg Fairbank, a Chicago merchant who helped finance the railroad, Fairbank was a family town with a population of 478 at the time of the 1890 census.
In its heyday, the town was just like any other small town—with five saloons, three restaurants, a meat market, a general store, a grocery, a hotel, a bank, a school and a post office. Compared to neighboring towns like Tombstone, Millville and Contention, Fairbank was a quiet place to live.
But Fairbank was also tough. She survived floods and earthquakes, and her residents even fought back when a group of nasty lawmen-turned-outlaws tried to rob a Wells Fargo boxcar in 1900.
But by the 1940s, the town was dying, says Mark Rekshynskyj, manager of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA). Fairbank died a slow death, caused by a mixture of drought, floods, the railroad's closure and other economic difficulties. In the mid-1970s, its last residents closed their roadside store and moved away.
Since 1988, the BLM has maintained the SPRNCA, which includes Fairbank and more than 56,000 acres of public land in Cochise County, according to the BLM's website. Today Fairbank is home to a mercantile building, a schoolhouse, a couple of small houses, a stable and outhouse, rail lines, the Grand Central Mill and a cemetery.
While no longer in use—with the exception of the schoolhouse, now a visitor center—it's all kept intact by the BLM.
"We've restored (Fairbank) with historical accuracy, and we historically preserve it," says Rekshynskyj. The BLM repaired the schoolhouse and mercantile building, has installed new windows in some of the buildings, and made a new, visitor-friendly fence. "We're looking to restore even more of it," he adds.
The Fairbank schoolhouse is stunning. It's restored with tan gypsum blocks and crystal-clear windows, but has the original wooden floor. The mercantile building, too, has windows so clean that your reflection bounces off. However, many of the buildings are rough around the edges: The wood is thin; the metal roofs are sun-burnt with rust.
However, the folks at the BLM have worked their butts off to restore these sun-stroked, water-damaged shacks. "We normally inherit buildings in terrible condition. (Fairbank) had a lag time of 50 years in building maintenance. Up until 1988, nothing was done, because (the town) wasn't part of the BLM," says Rekshynskyj.
But it's the raggedness that makes Fairbank charming in a Wild West kind of way—and since the public isn't allowed to touch or enter many of these buildings, there's an element of danger and suspense emanating from them.
On one house is a series of signs that shout: Unsafe Building! Do Not Enter! Danger: Stay Back! Rattlesnakes! I imagine breaking down the door to find a rattlesnake-covered floor. In a feat of bravery, I'd get all Annie Oakley and gun down those slithery beasts, and ...
"Wanna go see the cemetery?" my friend asks, rustling me out of my daydream.
We leave the main square—where all of the buildings are—and hike down a wide dirt trail. Rekshynskyj later tells me that the BLM maintains close to 65 miles of trails along the San Pedro River, which are open to the public for hiking, biking and running. "We just ask that people respect the town," he adds.
The trail is gorgeous. We're surrounded by a canopy of cottonwoods, and for a while, I forget I'm in Southern Arizona—but then I start to get hot and thirsty. Scattered along the trail are rusted trash cans and old farm equipment. In another context, they could be modern art.
My friend leans against a rusty contraption, and—making pouty, model-esque poses—asks me to snap some pictures. She continues do so for the rest of the trip, even as I tease her.
As we trek on, we run into a man coming back from Contention, another historic site three miles down. "There's hardly anything there—just some foundations of buildings," he huffs. His face is covered in white salt, and his clothes are drenched in sweat. "You're almost to the cemetery," he adds.
After climbing a steep hill, we're there, but it's not the kind of cemetery we expected. Instead of gray headstones and tiny bouquets of flowers, we find fallen wooden crosses and ... pennies? Perhaps it's an inside joke, a story left untold.
Sobiech tells me that although the BLM manages the cemetery, it's mainly looked after by the ancestors of those who lived in Fairbank. These ancestors, along with former Fairbank residents, get together annually for a picnic that's open to the public at the townsite. In addition to the annual picnic, the Friends of the San Pedro River hold monthly Fairbank Days during the winter. These Saturday events include bluegrass music and re-enactments of the 1900 train robbery.
We leave Fairbank hot and hungry, ready to head to our next destination: Tombstone. I have high hopes, even though I've been told it's pretty touristy.
As we walk down the main thoroughfare, I think: This place seems fake. Horses and buggies. Staged shootouts. Cowboy hats. Crappy barbecue. The buildings don't seem authentic; they're too clean and colorful.
I think back to Fairbank—and about the BLM employees who painstakingly work to make the town as authentic as possible. I think about the old Wild West and people, like Sobiech and Rekshynskyj, who fight to preserve our true past.
"People should understand that (Fairbank) is a piece of history," says Rekshynskyj. "Europe has castles hundreds of years old, but comparatively, the U.S. barely has any history that we've preserved."