The Queen of the Copper Camps: Bisbee

Bisbee is one of those unique mining towns that has evolved over the years. Once a thriving copper mining town, Bisbee is now home to retirees, artisans and writers, artists, and aging hippies and features historic buildings, homes, and rambling hillside streets that make the town an ideal place for visitors to explore and take a step back into history.

Located a mile high in the Mule Mountains, Bisbee is the southernmost mile high city in the U. S. A quirky art town perched along cliffs, Bisbee embraces its independent spirit and vertical nature—dozens of staircases are among the fastest, and most traveled, routes in town.

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. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now home to a thriving arts community, Bisbee’s unique shops and galleries along Main Street are complemented by an array of fine restaurants. For a glimpse of what life was like in Bisbee’s 1800’s heyday, visit the famed Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum (a Smithsonian Institute affiliate) and take the fascinating 75-minute Queen Mine Tour conducted by knowledgeable former miners. 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’s a constant 47 degrees.

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.

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.

Mining in the Mule Mountains was quite successful, and Bisbee proved to be one of the richest mineral sites in the world, producing nearly three million ounces of gold and more than eight billion pounds of copper, not to mention the silver, lead and zinc that came from these rich lands. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mining in the Mule Mountains was quite successful, and Bisbee proved to be one of the richest mineral sites in the world, producing nearly three million ounces of gold and more than eight billion pounds of copper, not to mention the silver, lead and zinc that came from these rich lands. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The city boasted a stock exchange, an early JC Penney, 52 mom-and-pop stores and 47 bars and saloons, many of them open 24 hours to serve the miners, no matter their shift.

Once known as “the Queen of the Copper Camps”, Bisbee has proven to be one of the richest mineral sites in the world, producing nearly three million ounces of gold, 102 million ounces of silver, and more than eight billion pounds of copper, as well as significant amounts of lead, manganese, and zinc.

A high quality strain of turquoise called “Bisbee Blue” was a by-product of the copper mining. Numerous other museum-quality mineral specimens have come from Bisbee area mines and are to be found in collections worldwide. Some of these include: Cuprite, aragonite, wulfenite, malachite, azurite, and galena.

Although no longer the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco, as it was in the early 20th century, this quirky place tenaciously clings to the steep slopes of the Mule Mountains as if to prove that it is here to stay.

Today, Bisbee is known as an artist's community and thrives on tourism thanks to the efforts of its citizens to restore the historic district. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Bisbee is known as an artist’s community and thrives on tourism thanks to the efforts of its citizens to restore the historic district. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With a population of over 20,000 people by the beginning of the century, Bisbee was one of the most cultured cities in the west. The town is still home to the nation’s (arguably) oldest ball field (Warren Ballpark), Arizona’s first golf course (Turquoise Valley), and the state’s first community library (Copper Queen), all dating from this period, and all still currently in operation, and open to the public.

Along with Bisbee’s cosmopolitan character, the colorful, rough edges of the mining camp could still be found in the notorious Brewery Gulch, with its saloons and brothels. The girls of the Gulch remain as legends of the old camp. Women like Crazy Horse Jill, who was called wildly immoral. Red Jean, known for her auburn hair, was beautiful and strong and could fight just about anyone and win, regardless of size. There was also Doc Holliday’s mistress, Kate Elder.

Historic taverns still retain the rich character and boom-town flavor of this period. You still can see the stone steps that once led to brothel doors.

A quirky art town perched along cliffs, Bisbee 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

A quirky art town perched along cliffs, Bisbee 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

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.

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

Worth Pondering…

The vast emptiness and overpowering silence of the desert and surrounding mountains sharpens your senses, enhancing self-contemplation, and stimulating creativity.

Leave a Reply