Queen of the Copper Camps: Bisbee, AZ

Though they share a region (southeastern Arizona) and a legacy (mining), Tombstone and Bisbee are on opposite ends of the tourist spectrum.

Bisbee is perched along the cliffs of Tombstone Canyon. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone’s rough-and-tumble past appeals to the outlaw in all of us. The shoot-out at OK Corral put the town on the map and continues to draw visitors, who can watch daily re-enactments of the gunfight.

Bisbee, a quirky art town perched along cliffs, embraces its independent spirit and vertical nature—dozens of staircases are among the fastest, and most traveled, routes in town. Enjoy the galleries, then descend into a copper mine to see how Bisbee came to be.

The residents of this friendly town of roughly 7,000 are a lively blend of retired miners, world-renowned artists, artisans and writers, musicians, aging hippies, and retiring baby boomers from all over the country.

After a short trip through a tunnel at Mule Pass, visitors arrive in Old Bisbee. Once known as the “Queen of the Copper Camps”, Bisbee shines with an allure all her own. Although no longer the second largest town between St. Louis and San Francisco, as it was in the early 20th century (only Denver was larger), this quirky place tenaciously clings to the steep slopes of the Mule Mountains as if to prove that it is here to stay.

At first glance, downtown Bisbee looks as if time stopped at the turn of the 20th century. Main Street, which runs up to Tombstone Canyon, is home to artist studios, galleries, and boutiques.

The Mule Mountains aren’t as impressive as some of the other ranges in southern Arizona, but their rocky canyons contained what became one of the richest mineral sites in the world. Jack Dunn, a scout with Company C from Fort Huachuca, first discovered an outcropping of rich ore in 1877 while chasing Apache Indians in the area.

Visitors can walk in the shoes of those old-time hard-rock miners with a Queen Mine tour. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By 1910, more than 20,000 people lived in the crowded canyons around the Bisbee mines.

In its heyday, around the First World War, Bisbee produced nearly 25 percent of the world’s copper.

Miners arrived not just from Pennsylvania and West Virginia but Ireland, England (especially Cornwall), Sweden, Finland, Serbia, Croatia, and Mexico—just seven miles to the south.

The city boasted a stock exchange, an early JCPenney, 52 mom-and-pop stores and more than 50 bars and saloons, many of them open 24 hours to serve the miners, no matter their shift. (Nearby was a golf course, now said to be “the longest continually operating course in Arizona.”)

Almost all of the businesses were on a street dubbed “Brewery Gulch,” sometimes called “the wildest place in the West.” You still can see the stone steps that once led to brothel doors.

Phelps Dodge purchased most of the other major mines during the Great Depression, and mining continued until 1975. In less than 100 years, the area surrounding Bisbee had yielded about $10 billion in copper (at today’s prices), all gleaned from a surface area of about 3 square miles.

Visitors can walk in the shoes of those old-time hard-rock miners with a Queen Mine tour. After donning a hard hat, Miner’s lamp, and a yellow slicker, a mine car takes you 1,500 feet into the man-made tunnel, where it is always 47 degrees. Five tours depart each day, seven days a week, from the Queen Mine Tour Building, located immediately south of Old Bisbee’s business district, off the U.S. 80 interchange.

Bisbee, a quirky art town perched along cliffs, embraces its independent spirit and vertical nature—dozens of staircases are among the fastest, and most traveled, routes in town. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Impressive, in size and design, is the Phelps Dodge Mining headquarters that is now the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum (a Smithsonian affiliate). It’s the “go to” place for local history, displays of minerals found in the surrounding Mule Mountains, and an up-to-date exhibit of copper’s role in the electrification of America.

The Copper Queen Library, the art deco county courthouse, the Gothic revival St. Patrick’s Church (with stunning stained glass windows by Emil Frei), all reinforce how prosperous this town once was.

One word of warning: Don’t take your RV into town; parking is limited.

On the way out of town we drove east in search of Whitewater Draw…but that’s another story.

There are a lot of surprises in this Southwest original; this land of Cochise and Geronimo—it’s worth a visit.

Worth Pondering…
From a poem called “Resolutions,” author unknown. “Be weary of giving advice.
Wise men don’t need it, and fools won’t heed it.”

This entry was posted in Historic Sites, Road Trips and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply