Not Mining His Own Business

Wild Bill Mahoney owns Wyatt Earp's patented mining claim in Tombstone. All that prevents him from turning it into a tourist attraction are the dozens of people living on it.

Bill Mahoney is a real estate agent by trade, and, being a real estate agent, he talks to a good amount of people and can hold forth on many subjects. Tell you what, he says, and, next thing you know, you're wrapped in gab and squirming for freedom.

Before long, the prattle leads to his pet topic--the mining claim he owns and how the title companies and their lawyers are out to deprive him of it and his dreams of what it can become.

Then come the miniature show-and-tell documents he keeps in his wallet--a color-coded map of Tombstone, a copy of a mining patent issued to Wyatt Earp and his brothers Virgil and James.

Mahoney looks right at home in Tombstone. He's a burly, hopelessly disheveled man with a rough past, leathery skin and morning-slicked hair that goes dry and awry by afternoon. He rides into town on the Friday before Memorial Day--the beginning of Wyatt Earp Days in Tombstone. The celebration catches Mahoney off guard, a bit surprising considering the 55-year-old Peoria resident has been immersed in Wyatt Earp and Tombstone for the past 30 months.

In December 1993, Mahoney and his wife, Martha, shelled out $8,600 for the First North Extension of the Mountain Maid, a mining claim patented by the Earps and a feller named R.J. Winders on October 21, 1881. The claim, one of ten staked out by various groupings of Earps, was the only one they patented, meaning that's where the Earps planned to stay and make their living. The patent came just five days before the brothers survived the famous shootout at the OK Corral, an event that keeps "The Town Too Tough to Die" teeming with tourists today.

At the time, there was a silver boom, and the feds were issuing patented claims left and right. In mining meccas like Tombstone, the 20-acre claims, which included surface rights, lay next to and all over each other on the map like spilled dominoes.

Squatters had spread like mumps. Community leaders figured they could establish some control by applying for a township patent.

But according to historians, before the township became official, the unscrupulous mayor presold all but a few town surface lots to his cronies for less than six bucks. Residents of those lots who refused to pay rent were then hassled by a cowboy cadre that included the notorious Clanton and McLaury brothers. The shakedown lasted nine months, until the courts ruled that the mayor had had no right to convey deeds to land the township hadn't owned.

In Mahoney's view, things in Tombstone haven't changed much. "That gives you an idea of the kind of people we're dealing with," he grumbles.

As Tombstone was sorting out the property disputes, Virgil Earp was appointed marshal, placing the Earps in position for the showdown at the OK Corral. Those were the days of real-life characters like Big Nose Kate and Doc Holliday, of Curly Bill Brocius and Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce.

With all that history going for the place, Bill Mahoney has this idea, something that would add some authenticity to all the false-fronted stores that line Tombstone's boardwalks. Despite genuine landmarks such as the old Cochise County Courthouse and the Bird Cage Theatre, Tombstone to Mahoney isn't the town too tough to die; it's the town too tacky to tolerate, a bunch of stores, as he puts it, "all sellin' the same junk."

There's the Crystal Palace Saloon, the historic meeting spot: "Now this," he says of the storied saloon, "is just a tourist thing, and a fun one. But I'm just sayin', when you come down here, and you got two or three kids in the car, and you wanna have a beer at the Crystal Palace, that's all great and everything. But let the kids learn something."

Something authentic.
What he finally gets around to saying is that he means to convert a mine shaft on the Earps' old claim into an educational tour, something that could be linked with the OK Corral and the Boot Hill graveyard in a sort of historic trinity for tourists.

"Plus," he says, "we make money, the city'd make a lot of money. It's just a win-win for everybody. What are they making now? I mean, by suppressing Wyatt Earp's mine, what are they making right now? Not a dime. And it's the dumbest thing."

The original language of the patent grants the claim to the holder "forever." And so Mahoney figures this is a no-brainer, a case of simple black and white--that it's the lawyers, with their howevers and excepts and betwixts and whereases, who are twisting everything around by saying his claim is no good.

As years went on, Tombstone grew, and stretched right over the Earps' patented mining claim.

"They never had a right to do that from day one," Mahoney says.
Thing is, when that happened, houses went up, taxes got paid, properties sold, years went by, chains of title tangled. Nearly 40 separately owned parcels blanket the surface of the First North Extension of the Mountain Maid mining claim--a surface Bill Mahoney is now proclaiming to be his.

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