Squeezed into Mule Pass Gulch of the Mule Mountains, the old mining town Bisbee has a lot of character. A tiny mining camp in 1877, Bisbee grew into a solid and wealthy town by 1910. The side canyon Brewery Gulch held more than 50 saloons in the early 1900s, earning a reputation as the best drinking and entertainment venue in the territory. Many of the fine commercial buildings and Victorian houses built in the boom years still stand. Bisbee's riches, mostly copper ore, came from underground chambers and giant surface pits. It's 24 miles south of Tombstone and 95 miles southeast of Tucson.
The story of Bisbee began over 100 million years ago, when a giant mass of molten rock deep in the earth's crust expelled great quantities of steam and hot water. The mineral-rich solutions slowly worked their way upward, replacing the overlying limestone rock with rich copper ores. Three hundred different minerals, many in bright hues, have been identified here.
While looking for silver in 1875, Hugh Jones noticed mineral deposits, but, annoyed to find only copper, he soon left. Two years later, Jack Dunn, an army scout, also found ore. He couldn't leave his army duties to go prospecting, so he and his partners made a deal with George Warren to establish a claim and share the profits. Warren, a tough old prospector and heavy drinker, lost Dunn's grubstake in a saloon while on his way to the Mule Mountains, then quickly found new backers—Dunn and his partners not among them—and filed claims. Two years later he recklessly put his share on a wager that claimed he could outrun a man on horseback, then lost everything. Warren died penniless, but his image endures as the miner on the State Seal of Arizona. The suburb south of downtown Bisbee also honors him.
New electrical industries needed copper, and investors took a keen interest in Warren's camp. Judge DeWitt Bisbee and a group of San Francisco businessmen bought the Copper Queen Mine in 1880, though the judge never did visit the mining community named for him. From the East, Dr. James Douglas of the Phelps Dodge Company came to Arizona, buying property near the Copper Queen. After the two companies discovered that the richest ores lay on the property boundary, they decided to merge rather than fight it out in court.
Soon a smelter filled the valley with smoke and the clatter of machinery. Streets were paved and substantial buildings went up. Labor troubles between newly formed unions and mine management culminated in the infamous Bisbee Deportation in July 1917, when deputies herded more than 1,000 striking miners at gunpoint into boxcars and shipped them out of the state. Working conditions improved in the following years, but Bisbee's economic life rolled with copper prices. The giant Lavender Pit closed in 1974, and underground mining ended the following year. The district had provided more than eight billion pounds of copper from 40 mines. Although mining has ended, a huge amount of ore still lies underground.
The town didn't dry up and blow away when the mines closed, however. People liked it here—the climate (5,300 feet), the scenery, the character. Bisbee has become a popular destination for many visitors, artists, and retired people. The city consists of the historic district downtown and the communities of Lowell, Warren, and San Jose.
The twisting streets offer some great walking and photographing possibilities. Main Street, Brewery Gulch, and other downtown areas have well-preserved commercial buildings. Side streets lead past old residences. Two churches are worth a visit, the 1903 Covenant Presbyterian Church with its slender steeple at 19 Howell Ave. (next to the Copper Queen Hotel) and the 1915-17 St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church with its 27 stained-glass windows (turn off Tombstone Canyon at the Iron Man statue). You can learn the history of the many early-1900s' buildings in town with the chamber of commerce's Bisbee Walking Tours pamphlet. If you'd like some real exercise, ask for a map of the Thousand Step Stair Climb route—actually 1034 steps! Parking can be a challenge in town—another good reason to get around on foot—but with a little patience you'll find a space.
Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum
Step into the 1895 former Phelps Dodge General Office Building to experience the remarkable history of Bisbee's people and mining (Copper Queen Plaza downtown, 520/432-7071, www.bisbeemuseum.org, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, $7.50 adults, $6.50 seniors 60+, $3 under 16). The exhibit, "Bisbee: Urban Outpost on the Frontier" illustrates the city's remarkable transition from a remote mining camp to a bustling city complete with trolleys and other modern conveniences. Also on the main floor, the former General Manager's Office still commands respect with its wood-paneled elegance. Changing exhibits and a research library lie just beyond. Continue upstairs for "Digging In: Bisbee's Mining Heritage" that tells the copper story from the Bisbee perspective. You'll see how miners worked in underground and pit mines. Mineral specimens and a reconstructed crystal cave show the bright colors and beautiful forms found deep within the earth.
Queen Mine Tour
Don a hard hat, lamp, and yellow slicker for a ride deep underground on a mine car. A guide—himself a miner—will issue the equipment and lead you through the mine. He'll explain history, drilling tools, blasting methods, ore loading, and other mining features in the stope (work area) and tunnels. The tour is highly recommended. Bring a sweater or jacket as it's cold inside (47ºF). There are some steps to the stope area but the rest of the walking is level. The 75-minute tour leaves at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. daily and costs $12 adults, $5 youth 4-15. Reservations are a good idea in the busy Jan.-May season and anytime for groups, 520/432-2071 or 866/432-2071, http://queenminetour.com. Buy tickets at the Queen Mine Building just south of downtown across AZ 80.
The mine operated for more than 60 years before shutting down in 1943. Its seven levels have 143 miles of passageways; the whole district boasts over 2,000 miles.
Lavender Open Pit
A total of 380 million tons of ore and waste has been scooped out of this giant hole, which you can peer into from a parking area off US 80, one mile south of downtown. Surface mining began only in 1951.
Bisbee Restoration Association Museum
Drop in to see old photos, mining gear, clothing, and household items of Bisbee's early residents (downtown at 37 Main St., hours depend on staffing, free).
Muheim Heritage House
On tours through this restored and furnished 1902 Victorian dwelling at 207 Youngblood Hill, you'll see how a prominent family lived early in the 20th century. The house (520/432-7698, usually 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Fri.-Tues., but call to check, $2 adults, free for children) is a pleasant walk up Brewery Gulch; continue past Youngblood Hill to stairs that lead up the hillside to the house. If driving, take either the easier Brewery Avenue or the very narrow OK Street to Youngblood Hill, which is not suitable for RVs or trailers.
For views of town and surrounding hills, climb to this pilgrimage site above Brewery Gulch. A man with failing eyesight once asked permission from land owner Joseph Muheim for permission to erect a cross here. When the man's eyesight dramatically improved, people began constructing shrines and continue to do so—you may even see a Tibetan one. At the upper end of OK Street, look for a well-worn path, probably unsigned, and follow it to the 5,850-foot summit, also known as Grotto Hill or Youngblood Hill; generally take the uphill branches where the trail forks. The roundtrip is about an hour with a 450-foot elevation gain. There's no parking at the trailhead, so you'll need to leave your vehicle back in town.
Vicinity of Bisbee
The sleepy Mexican border town of Naco is just ten miles south of downtown Bisbee. There's little to see or do here; the Mexican side is much like rural communities of interior Mexico. The downtown has a few restaurants and pharmacies, but no craft shops. To walk across the border, follow signs for "Naco, Arizona" and turn left on Towner Avenue to its end, where you can park.
On to Bisbee Practicalities
On to Douglas