A former copper mining town in Arizona charms visitors with dramatic views and historical
By Gerald C. and Sharon L. Hammon, A275831
Are you planning to head to Arizona for the winter? It is hard to beat sitting outside your motorhome in balmy temperatures as you read about the latest blast of winter encasing the northern states and provinces in an icy grip. Are you also wondering what there is to see in Arizona? One of our favorites happens to be the town of Bisbee, located in the southeastern corner of the state, only 8 miles from the Mexico border.
Bisbee combines topography that will remind you of San Francisco, history that is a microcosm of the West, and a delightful blend of colorful people and businesses. Bisbee’s elevation at 5,500 feet means the average temperature will be 10 to 20 degrees cooler during the summer than sweltering Tucson or Phoenix. Yet even in January, the coldest month, Bisbee is far enough south that it seldom gets snow.
So why go to Bisbee? If you have any interest in history, you will be visiting what was one of the great mining bonanzas of the West. Copper was king here, and the discoveries of huge lodes under the canyons and gulches of the Mule Mountains coincided with the development of electrical lighting and telephones. Whereas gold and silver had been the goal of early prospectors, by the 1880s copper served as the basis for stunning fortunes.
It has occurred to us during our travels through the West that the rich ores that spurred much of Western settlement were never located in easy places. There wasn’t much mineralization in the flat valleys along the Salt River in Arizona where Phoenix is located; instead, the deposits that formed the basis of fortunes were found in places such as the Mule Mountains, a tortured land inflicted with steep canyons, jagged peaks, and few places to plot a town. But since that is where the copper was, that’s where Bisbee was founded.
The second reason for visiting Bisbee is its vertical orientation. Level spaces were hard to come by when it was built. As you enter the town, particularly from the west, you can’t help but notice houses hanging on the sides of impossible slopes, with staircases climbing to residences that have no road connections. The cookie-cutter effect seen in modern towns is definitely not in place here. And since most of the earliest settlers were single men, their homes were basic and small. Some of the oldest shacks have been abandoned and allowed to deteriorate, but others are occupied by fit individuals who find the view worth the price of hauling groceries up and up and up from their cars.
Like those early settlers, you also will notice that Bisbee can be cursed with too much water. The large drains and paved watercourses you see help preserve the town. Floods carried houses and even businesses away before the settlers realized the damage monsoon storms could inflict. One story locals like to tell is that in the early days, folks discovered they could locate their privies over the washes, with doors that could be opened upstream and downstream when it rained hard to wash the contents far away. But when the expected downpour fizzled, the contents moved only a short distance. Needless to say, prayers for more rain were uttered by many.
A third reason for visiting Bisbee is its vibrant, eclectic commercial district. During the heyday of mining, businesses were geared to the needs of the mineworkers. As mining jobs stabilized, the workforce shifted from itinerant single men ready to move on at the drop of a rumor to men who were married and had families. As you’d expect, businesses changed accordingly. For a while, Bisbee was reputed to be the largest and most sophisticated city between St. Louis and San Francisco.
Mining, even at its best, is a boom and bust industry. In Bisbee, the bust came when Phelps-Dodge, the primary mine operator, shut down at last in 1975. The town’s population plummeted; but, fortunately for Bisbee and future visitors, a few entrepreneurs saw hope for a lifestyle that emphasized arts and crafts and 1960s-style nonconformity. They occupied abandoned residences and opened all manner of shops in vacant downtown buildings. Their contribution to the wonderful diversity of the community is a major reason we enjoy walking the downtown streets today, prowling the rich stew of shops that offer everything from crystal and handcrafted jewelry to elegant garments.
We recommend starting at the visitors center (2 Copper Queen Plaza) to figure out what you’d like to see and do. This center is staffed by people who know and love their town, and their insights will help make your visit more rewarding.
Be sure to see the old Copper Queen Hotel, completed in 1902 and intended as an upscale hostelry for officials and clients of the Phelps-Dodge Mining Company. Perched above the commercial center of town, the hotel is one of the more visible landmarks in Bisbee. The building shows its age — it is the longest continuously operated hotel in the state — but is still considered a respectable place to stay. Its restaurant, Angela’s, carries on a tradition of fine dining practiced for years by its predecessor, Winchester’s. The lobby and the restaurant are worth a visit, if for no other reason than to get a feel for the history and the people who once stayed there.
From the hotel, we recommend walking up Brewery Gulch, at least as far as the 1905 Muheim Building with its Stock Exchange Bar. This really was a stock exchange for a time, and a blackboard remains in place listing stocks of interest. Don’t miss the original tin ceiling.
Continue to Old City Park, nestled on a terrace overlooking the street. At one time, this park served as the town’s cemetery. But following a series of typhoid outbreaks caused by contaminated well water, the bodies were removed and transported to Evergreen Cemetery in 1914. Apparently, none of those who were moved complained.
Brewery Gulch, named for the beer-making industry that once thrived here, also provides an excellent view of the homes perched on steep slopes above, along with those amazing staircases that seem to just keep on climbing.
The plaza below the Copper Queen Hotel still serves more or less as the commercial center of town. The modern building that houses the visitors center, looking rather plain amidst the older elegant commercial structures, once served as the Phelps-Dodge company store. Employees could buy just about anything there, from groceries to appliances. Today, in addition to the visitors center, it accommodates several upscale shops that cater to tourists.
Across from the old Phelps-Dodge company store is the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, a small collection with an excellent reputation. It was the first rural museum to claim an affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution. While its focus is largely on mining, it also contains exhibits that reflect the ways in which Bisbee grew and changed.
Bisbee’s life as a major mining company town is apparent in several other locations throughout the community. The Queen Mine Tours and the Lavender Pit are two remaining symbols of the activity that made Bisbee a source of wealth. Overlooks along eastbound State Route 80 allow you to gaze into the depths of the Lavender Pit. Mining began in Bisbee with underground mines such as the Queen Mine, with shafts sinking deep into the ground that tied into a maze of underground passageways to the ore itself. Eventually, the richest ore had been claimed and it became more cost-effective to create an open pit mine, which is what the Lavender Pit is. The hole in the ground today was once a mountain.
The Queen Mine Tours let you see what mining was like before Phelps-Dodge simply tore away mountains. Don a rubber slicker and a hard hat, and climb aboard an electric mine train. With a retired miner as a guide, you’ll be taken deep within the mountain. There, tools and equipment are demonstrated, and tales are told about the days when mining was mostly an underground activity. This tour is offered year-round.
To the south and east of Bisbee is more evidence of the degree to which this area was dominated by mining. Enormous piles of mine tailings reach south almost to the Mexico border and line State Route 80 (the Douglas Highway) to the east. Railroad spurs once used by hopper cars carrying ore to the smelter in Douglas now slowly rust away.
Bisbee is a town best enjoyed on foot. While walking, you can easily take in the vertical and horizontal views. Some streets are narrow, and parking is limited, although lots are available near the plaza.
You can sample Bisbee in a day, but we’ll bet you’ll come back for more.
Bisbee Visitor Center
2 Copper Queen Plaza
Bisbee, AZ 85603
If you plan to take your motorhome to Bisbee, the Queen Mine RV Park (520-432-5006, www.queenminervpark.parks.officelive.com) is centrally located, and many RV sites overlook various historical parts around town. Other RV parks in Bisbee include America’s Best Value Inn & Suites (520-432-2293; www.bestvalueinnbisbee.com) and San Jose RV Park & Lodge (520-432-5761, www.sanjoselodge.com).
Just outside of town are Turquoise Valley Golf, Restaurant & RV Park in Naco (520-432-3091, www.turquoisevalley.com) and Double Adobe Campground & Shotgun Sports in McNeal (800-694-4242, 520-364-4000, www.doubleadobe.com).
For more listings, consult your favorite campground directory or check the listings in the RV Marketplace, found at FMCA.com and in the January and June issues of FMC.