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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The dedication for the Copper Miners Statue.