Prospectors and investors moved into Arizona after the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. To obtain the silver and gold they hunted, miners dug into the sides of hills and into shafts dug down into the earth.  Boom towns like Tombstone called to talented hard-rock miners world-wide, who came to Arizona to find work and a future underground.

My father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather all worked underground in the mines of Bisbee, Arizona. I grew up listening to tales of the dangers and excitement of the mines.  The near-misses, the rescues, the mammoth roaches and the temperatures. Two thousand miles of underground tunnels hollow the earth beneath Bisbee and the surrounding countryside. Sometimes Dad worked the night shift and we would go pick him up after work still in the dark.  The daily afternoon blast siren was a normal occurrence. Every Bisbee child was well-versed in blasting cap safety.

I recently taught several groups of first graders a bit about Arizona geology, and was surprised to realize how little students today know about mining.  “Who can tell me what a mine is?” I asked.  The quick response was, “like Mine-Craft?” I realized it will be a large task, helping Arizona’s future know about Arizona’s past.

Please take time to enjoy this terrific video presented by the City of Bisbee, the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum and the Bisbee Queen Mine Tour. Watch the video here.

Underground miners were certainly aware of the monetary value of the silver, gold and copper that they mined, but they also were awed by the beautiful caverns formed deep underground and covered with the secondary forms of the ore they blasted, shoveled and hauled up from the mines.  These often take the form of delicate crystals with wonderful colors. As a child I was lucky to visit one such crystalline cave.  In 1997 the Smithsonian Museum in Washington recreated one of these Bisbee caverns in the Museum. I keep a copy of the book commemorating it in my rock case,  Treasures of the Queen by Richard Graeme.


Bisbee samples with the Smithsonian book on their display from the Bisbee mines.

Bisbee samples

Bisbee Collection

Aurichalcite, a coopper mineral, Bisbee, Arizona

Aurichalcite, a copper mineral, Bisbee, Arizona

Macachite (green) and Azurite (blue) secondary copper minerals

Malachite (green) and Azurite (blue) secondary copper minerals

Native Copper, Bisbee, Arizona

Native Copper, Bisbee, Arizona

Malachite, Bisbee, Arizona

Malachite, Bisbee, Arizona


My Dad's Carbide Lamp

My Dad’s Carbide Lamp

Collecting Arizona, a great resource

Collecting Arizona, a great resource


Historic: Wild West


Wild West

For many, the southern Arizona town of Tombstone embodies Arizona’s frontier days. That would be true.  Tombstone was once bigger than San Francisco.  In the 1880s it had quite a reputation as a boomtown of the West.  But Tombstone wasn’t alone in its notoriety.  Around the same time as Tombstone’s heyday, other towns in Arizona were equally lively.  Just 24 miles from Tombstone is Bisbee, my home town.

Just as gold and silver had motivated the Spaniards to search for mineral wealth in southern Arizona, it seemed that everyone was a prospector after the discovery of gold in California.  The Mule Mountains where Bisbee is located first gave a hint of a wealth to a cavalry scout.  Just as other boomtowns were doing, Bisbee attracted prospectors and investors from the 1880s on and  grew and prospered. At the turn of the century Bisbee housed 20,000 inhabitants and Brewery Gulch hosted  50 saloons, gambling establishments and brothels. It even had its own Stock Market Exchange.  Its reputation as the wildest city between St. Louis and San Francisco was well-earned.

Bisbee was built along two canyons. The main canyon came to be called Tombstone Canyon, and the other was Brewery Gulch.

Brewery Gulch 2

Brewery Gulch


The original mineral exploration in Bisbee was for silver and gold.  But as the demand for copper grew, Bisbee’s rich copper ore built large mining corporations and Bisbee was one of the biggest cities in Arizona.  The copper ore was accessed deep underground. Immense bodies of high grade ore made Bisbee mines some of the richest in the world.

Headframe of the Campbell Shaft.

Headframe of the Campbell Shaft.

Sacramento Pit

Open pit mining became feasible during WWI. In 1917 tons of explosives were used to blast the top of Sacramento Hill in Bisbee and terracing began to get to the copper ore.

Lavender Pit

By the mid-1950s Sacramento Hill was a hole in the ground, and the pit was expanded to become the Lavender Pit. This necessitated the removal of roads, homes and businesses that lay in the path of the proposed open pit copper mine.

By 1915, times had changed.  Families lived in Bisbee, and the brothels and gambling had been shut down.  Prohibition had been declared in Arizona and the bars in Brewery Gulch disappeared.  Bisbee had a railroad, street cars, churches, schools and celebrations.  There were hard rock drilling contests between  miners from all over the West. Every fourth of July there were coaster races down Tombstone Canyon, parades and fireworks.

Coaster Race

The mines closed in the 1970s and Bisbee avoided becoming a ghost town because its wonderful climate made it attractive to retirees and artists. A visit to Arizona should include a trip to Bisbee.  Much of the Main Street and surrounding homes on steep hillsides have been well-preserved and you have choices of great places to stay.  The Copper Queen Hotel pictured in the Cuprite photo above, other historic inns and bed and breakfasts, even an old jail!  The Queen Mine tour is not to be missed.  The mine opened in 1877 and will give you a tiny taste of what made the Bisbee miners such well-thought of workers:

Bisbee's Iron Man statue has been painted copper.

Bisbee’s Iron Man statue has been painted copper.

The plaque at the foot of the Copper Miners Statue at the top of this page.

The dedication for the Copper Miners Statue.