In Back to the Future 3, Doc Brown is only able to save Clara Clayton because of Marty's presence (as they had to scout that area for the plan).

Though if Marty had not traveled back in time, Doc Brown wouldn't have been present near the railway tracks and wouldn't have saved Clara (which is evident as Marty says that she had fallen into the ravine in the timeline where Marty doesn't travel back). If Doc Brown couldn't have saved Clara then she couldn't have dedicated her name to Doc Brown's gravestone, as she would have been dead before him.

Therefore, how could Clara's name be the tombstone in the timeline before Marty leaves to save Doc Brown?

The tombstone reads:

Here lies Emmett Brown
DIED September 7, 1885

Shot in the back by Buford Tannen over a matter of 80 dollars

Erected in eternal memory by his beloved CLARA

8 Answers 8


This actually ties back to the multiple time lines theory of Back to the Future (explained in the second movie), and in this case it gets a little more spaghetti'd.

In the original time line established at the beginning of the first Back to the Future movie, Doctor Brown never traveled back in time, Clara died, the ravine was named after her and all the kids want their teachers to fall into it.

Jump forward to the end of Back to the Future 2. Doctor Brown has gone back in time and created a new time line, which Marty is now in (counters Bttf2 a little). In this timeline Emmett is asked to pick up Clara from the train station (just like when Marty is there), he does and he and Clara fall in love shortly before Emmett dies. While we never see a map of the ravine in this new time line, I would venture to say that it was not named the Clayton Ravine.

Jump forward (backward) a little more to when Emmett and Marty are scouting the tracks. Clara is on the same path as the original, original time line. No one picks her up, she tries to drive herself home and is on course to die. However, this time Marty and Emmett save Clara at the brink, once again altering history and creating a new, new, new, new, new... time line.

Go to the end of the movie and Eastwood/Marty falls into the ravine and creates (you guessed it) another new time line. The ravine is now called Eastwood Ravine and Clara and Emmett live happily ever after.

When Marty comments that the ravine was called Clayton Ravine, named after a teacher who died in it, he is remembering history from the very first, original time line, from the start of Back to the Future 1. The moment Emmett went back to 1885 he started to change history but Marty wasn't schooled in that new history, so he never learned it.

  • 5
    There's also a conjecture that in the second timeline, Clara was so distraught over Emmett's death that she committed suicide by jumping into the ravine, which got renamed for her.
    – dan04
    Commented Apr 9, 2013 at 0:25
  • 1
    @dan04 Whether she did or not is unfortunately unknown at this point. I prefer to think she did not.
    – Xantec
    Commented Apr 9, 2013 at 18:23
  • 2
    so in a nutshell it was called Clayton Ravine in the original timeline, then Doc saved Clara creating timeline two and the name of the Ravine in that timeline is never mentioned
    – IG_42
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 22:11
  • 3
    They actually do give the original name of the ravine, I think it was something like "Shonash". They give the name in dialogue when going through the miniature model. Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 18:55
  • This answer got more upvotes than the original question XD Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 21:24

There is an official answer to this question, involving multiple altered versions of the timeline, in the Back to the Future FAQ by BTTF writer Bob Gale and writer/director Robert Zemeckis. I'll just quote the whole thing below (but see in particular the box labeled "Version #2", as well as the parenthetical remark at the end of "Version #3"):

1.18: How could Clara have erected the tombstone for Doc after September 7, 1885 if she was supposed to have gone over the cliff on September 4th? At the beginning of Back to the Future Part III, would the name of the ravine be "Clayton," "Shonash" or "Eastwood?"

A: The "Original History" occurred before Doc Brown was ever born or invented the time machine. This is how things would have been written in the history books in Back to the Future, and in most of Back to the Future Part II.

Version #1 — "Original History"

  • August 29, 1885: Hill Valley Town Meeting. No one volunteers to meet the new school teacher at the station.
  • September 4, 1885: Clara arrives at the train station. Since no one is there to meet her, she rents a buckboard. While heading out to the school house, a snake spooks the horses, they run wild, the buckboard goes out of control, and over the edge of Shonash Ravine. Clara is killed.
  • September 9, 1885: After a memorial service for Clara Clayton, the city fathers decide to name the ravine in her memory. Thus, "Shonash Ravine" becomes "Clayton Ravine."

Again, Version #1 is the history of Hill Valley that happened BEFORE the beginning of Back to the Future.

At the conclusion of Back to the Future Part II, Doc is zapped back to January 1, 1885. He settles in Hill Valley as a blacksmith, and the above events are altered because of his presence, as follows:

Version #2 — Doc in 1885, without Marty.

  • August 29, 1885: Hill Valley Town Meeting. Doc Brown volunteers to meet the school teacher at the train station.
  • September 4, 1885: Doc meets Clara at the train station and they fall in love at first sight.
  • September 5, 1885: Doc takes Clara to the festival. Buford shows up and shoots Doc in the back with the derringer. Despite Clara's efforts at nursing him, Doc dies two days later from internal bleeding as a result of the gunshot wound.
  • September 9, 1885: Clara dedicates Doc's tombstone, "In loving memory from his beloved Clara."

In this sequence, the name of the ravine remains "Shonash Ravine." This history ripples into the future AFTER Doc is struck by lightning at the end of Back to the Future Part II. Marty, however, retains his knowledge and memory of the original history because he has come from a point in the space-time continuum in which the original history applied. If Marty were to go to the ravine in 1955 at the beginning of Back to the Future Part III (on his way to the Pohatchee Drive-In, for example), he would discover that the ravine is called "Shonash Ravine."

In Back to the Future Part III, Marty's trip to September 2, 1885 alters Version #2 as follows:

Version #3 — Doc and Marty both in 1885

  • August 29, 1885: Exactly the same as in version #2: Doc volunteers to meet the school teacher.
  • September 3, 1885: As seen in Back to the Future Part III, Marty shows Doc the photo of the Tombstone. Doc decides NOT to meet Clara at the station.
  • September 4, 1885: Clara arrives at the station. No one is there to meet her, so she rents a buckboard, as in Version #1. Similarly, on her journey to the schoolhouse, the snake spooks the horses and they run wild toward the ravine. As seen in the film, Doc rescues her from going over into the ravine. They meet and fall in love at first sight.
  • September 5, 1885: At the festival, Doc's behavior is now different due to his knowledge that Buford is going to shoot him in the back (which is why Doc keeps facing front to Buford). Because Buford never does shoot him at the festival, and due to Marty's interference, the name on the tombstone photo vanishes.
  • September 7, 1885: "Clint Eastwood" is apparently killed when the runaway locomotive plunges into the ravine. In honor of his heroic action against Buford Tannen, the city fathers decide to name the ravine after him.

(Incidentally, there is an alternative scenario that may have occurred in Version #2: On September 15, 1885, Clara, distraught over Doc's death, commits suicide by jumping into the ravine. As a gesture of sympathy, the people of Hill Valley decide to name the ravine in her in memory, thus putting the space-time continuum back into a similar situation as in Version #1. We will remain ambiguous about whether this suicide incident actually happened in Version #2 so that the viewer may choose whichever scenario fits into his own theories about time travel.)

  • 1
    One problem I have with this is that no-one volunteered to pick up the new schoolteacher in the Version #1 sequence of events. It makes sense that Clara would have had to rent a buckboard in Version #3 as Doc had promised to pick her up and then not done it, and everyone else would have assumed that he would. But in the original history, surely someone else would have volunteered, or if no-one had, the Mayor himself would most likely have said, "What's the matter with you people? Alright, I'll do it!"
    – Wallnut
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 13:23
  • ...Unless it was a Hill Valley law that only blacksmiths could pick up young ladies at railway stations, and in that timeline there was no blacksmith in Hill Valley.
    – Wallnut
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 13:24
  • 2
    @Wallnut - Maybe renting a buckboard was just the normal thing most out-of-towners did on arrival, picking her up would have been seen as a nice gesture but if no one could spare the time it wouldn't have been considered rude to leave her to her own devices and make the introductions later.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 15:00
  • That's plausible. When I went to the States last year I was hoping I might get picked up at the airport but as my friends were busy I got the train. I wasn't miffed.
    – Wallnut
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 9:47

First, Doc Brown had agreed to meet the new school teacher at the rail station before Marty came back to 1885. It was the sudden appearance of Marty and their scheming to return to the future that caused Doc Brown to forget his appointment, but coincidentally be near the ravine to save Clara from plunging in.

In the original timeline Doc Brown met her at the train station, they fell in love, they danced at the festival, and Doc Brown was shot in the back (at the festival) by Tannen.

Marty's sudden appearance in 1885 changed the sequence of events. he was subsequently able to save Doc Brown from being shot in the back at the party.

It is always possible that Clara may have subsequently died in the ravine at a later date after having fallen in love with Doc Brown. Maybe she was just really unlucky in wagons and their proximity to the ravine.

  • On your last point, Clayton Ravine was named in the universe where neither Doc nor Marty arrived in the past, so she would have died in the ravine.
    – komodosp
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 9:03

We can assume that in the original timeline, Clara Clayton died in the ravine - since it was originally called "Clayton Ravine".

What we don't know is when she died in the ravine.

The order of events in BTTF3:

  1. Doc & Clara fall in love
  2. Mad Dog attempts to kill Doc, but Marty saves him
  3. Doc & Clara get into an argument when Doc tries to tell her the truth
  4. Clara starts to leave town
  5. Doc & Marty head towards the ravine with the time machine
  6. Clara changes her mind
  7. Clara ends up in danger
  8. Clara is saved by Doc, but Marty (aka: Clint Eastwood) is presumed dead.

What would have happened if Marty had not saved Doc? Well, she wouldn't have been trying to race back to Doc and Marty - so she probably wouldn't have died in the ravine on the same day in history.

This leaves a lot of wiggle room as to just when Clara could have dedicated the tombstone before her own death.


An alternate set of circumstances likely allowed Doc Brown to meet and come to know Clara. Possibly Marty's presence subtly altered the chain of events so that she needed rescuing, while had he not been there Doc Brown would have met her in more conventional circumstances.

In some time-travel franchises, the writers will include such "destiny" features as an important feature of the concept of time travel, such that no matter what people do to change the timeline, such fixed events happen regardless. They seem to be suggesting this same idea in the BTTF trilogy.


In Back to the Future the history was that Clara was a teacher who lost control of her horses and fell into the ravine.

At the end of Back to the Future Part 2 Doc is in the DeLorean when it gets struck by lightening. Moments later Western Union gives Marty a letter and he finds out where Doc ended up.

In Back to the Future Part 3 Marty and 1955 Doc read Doc's letter to go get the DeLorean he perserved in a cemetery.

They go to get the Delorean to fiix it up and get the parts and after Marty and 1955 Doc starts to leave Marty goes to get Einstein because he won't move when they call his name. When Marty picks the dog up his flash light beams on a tombstone, doesn't recognize it, and then comes back and looks at it thoroughly and takes a picture.

After 1955 Doc and Marty find out what has happen they go to the Library to research what exactly happened, but can't because Marty reads that he shot a news reporter in 1884. Marty then goes to say that he is going to go to 1885 to bring Doc back home.

In 1885 Marty shows Doc the picture he took of the tombstone and when Doc reads it he tells Marty that he never heard of a Clara. Marty tells him about what he read in the library back in 1955 and that he falls instintly in love with her.

Later on the Mayor (or who ever he was) reminded Doc that he promised to meet the new teacher at the train station, a woman named Clara. Doc remembers waht Maarty told him earlier and decides not to meet her snd work on how they will get back home in the DeLorean o ntrain tracks when they see a woman in a wagon going out of control and Marty says we have to help her.

  • 2
    That's a pretty good synopsis of the backstory, but fails to address the actual question.
    – phantom42
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 20:16
  • The Doc's dog in 1955 was Copernicus. Einstein (the canine version) hadn't yet been born.
    – Wallnut
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 13:20

She also had a time machine. She went back to the past in the future and then later returned to the past in another time machine that she built later in the future.


Marty's memory never changes in all of time traveling. This is kinda creepy because he basically would have no memory of his childhood when he returns to 1985 in BTTF1.

So before any time traveling starts, Clayton died in the ravine and it is named after her.

In BTTF3, The tombstone reads Doc fell in love with Clara, but the returned to 1985 Marty would have no idea what the ravine is named in the new 1985 because he altered his entire childhood in BTTF1.

SO, doc picks up Clara in 1885, they fall in love, and Doc is later killed by Mad Dog, thus making the tombstone epitaph.

Neither Doc nor Marty have any idea what the ravine is called at the end of BTTF1 or at any other part in time until Marty returns a 3rd time to 1985 and finds the ravine named after his incognito self from 1885.

Clara is saved, or rather prevented from dying first by just Doc alone in 1885 before his death by Mad dog. 1955 doc would also only remember it as Clayton ravine because his 1955 memory doesn't know his 1985 and onward travels. When Marty goes to 1885 to save Doc, this time they save her, and Doc still falls in love.

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