In 1877, Army Scout Jack Dunn led a group of cavalrymen to Mule Mountain, Ariz., searching the area for rebellious Apaches. Instead Dunn discovered copper deposits in the walls of the canyon near where his group camped for the night.
Before long, fortune hunters rushed to Mule Mountain hoping to strike it rich. Mines and diggings scattered the hillsides. Bisbee, Queen of the Mining Camps, emerged as one of the richest mineral sites in the world, producing not only copper but an abundance of gold, silver, lead, zinc, turquoise and azurite. At its peak, the mines included more than 2,500 miles of tunnels.
A mine tour guide explains to tourists how copper was removed from the ground at the turn of the last century..
The mines fueled growth and by the early 1900s, Bisbee’s population soared. The town boasted more than 47 saloons (famously known as Brewery Gulch), gambling establishments and its own stock exchange. Bisbee became the biggest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. This booming mining community’s glory days lasted for close to a century.
The mines produced more than 8 billion pounds of copper, 77 million pounds of silver, 2.8 million ounces of gold, as well as millions of pounds of zinc, lead and manganese. When depleted ore reserves closed the mines in 1975, it looked like Bisbee might come to a grinding halt. But the town continued to prosper in other ways.
Bisbee’s Turn-of-the-Century Charm
In 1976, Bisbee’s Mayor Chuck Eads promoted mine tours as a way to keep the miners employed. When my family and I visited Bisbee recently, we took the Queen Mine Tours and found out what it was like to work in a mine.
We started our mining excursion by donning yellow slickers and hard hats and wrapping a miner’s headlamp around our shoulders. Mining trains carried us 1,500 feet down into the mines, where the temperature dipped to 47 degrees.
A retired miner led the tour and described working conditions and the dangers miners encountered underground. He also explained the drilling equipment they used and how they transported the minerals to the surface.
But the mine tours were just one way the town survived. When the mines closed, the Bisbee housing market collapsed and real estate was at an all-time low. But fortunately for Bisbee, cheap housing and an alluring climate attracted artists and visionaries, and the mining town took on a new look. Art galleries, antique shops, gourmet restaurants, coffee houses, book stores and specialty shops blossomed.
Wander down Main Street today and you’ll discover hand-made gold and silver jewelry, and pottery using gemstones and local minerals at Paleface Trading Company. Killer Bee Honey offers tasty samples of its delicious honey, honey butters and award-winning honey mustards.
Tours of the Queen Mine allowed Bisbee to survive.
You’ll also come across a number of galleries, including the Belleza Gallery, offering art from local artisans. If you’re searching for a one-of-a kind gift for someone special, The Copper Shop offers solid copper art pieces handmade in Bisbee as well as solid copper wall sconces, clocks, switch plates and outlet covers.
Discover eateries that offer gourmet delicacies, homemade specials, freshly baked bread, and pastas and pizzas scattered along the main shopping district.
Check out the Bisbee Grille if you’re looking for seafood, soups or grilled foods. Sip specialty coffees and teas while you munch on quiches, pastries and cakes at Bisbee Coffee Company.
Experience elegant Italian dining at Café Roka. Roka serves a delicious and reasonably priced four-course dinner and extensive wine list. (You won’t be disappointed if you try its succulent Roasted Quail.)
Renovations to Bisbee’s European and Victorian-style houses and buildings in the late 1970s also enhanced property values. One renovation in particular, The Copper Queen Hotel, was a key reason Bisbee retained its authentic old-town charm.
The Phelps-Dodge Mining Company initially built the hotel at the end of the 1800s to house dignitaries and investors visiting the mines. After the mines closed, artist Stephen Hutchison and his wife bought and renovated the hotel, and its revival helped spark Bisbee’s turnaround.
Watch Out for the Ghosts
The Copper Queen Hotel has more than just old mining-town charm. Sci-Fi Channel’s Ghost Hunters’ episode “Spirits of the Old West” featured The Copper Queen Hotel. If you stay there, you may get an opportunity to experience paranormal activity.
Historic brewery in downtown Bisbee.
During your visit, listen for phantom footsteps of a young giggling boy running through the hallways. Poke around the Julia Lowell Room and you might hear the former “lady of the evening” whisper in your ear.
Don’t be surprised if you glance toward the Teddy Roosevelt Room and catch a glimpse of an apparition of a tall, older gentleman wearing a black cape and a top hat. (And that’s just a few of the ghostly figures that wander the hotel’s hallways.)
Across from the Copper Queen Hotel you’ll find the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate. Here you’ll find out about the town, the people who lived here, and what life was like over a century ago.
But Wait, There’s More
Time permitting (when you’re not hunting for ghosts or mining for copper and gold) there are a couple of neighboring towns worth a visit.
Enjoy gunfight shows, the Bird Cage Theatre, the O. K. Corral, and stagecoach and wagon tours at the historic western town of Tombstone; examine a stunning limestone cave filled with minerals not found in any other cave at Kartchner Caverns State Park in Benson and treat yourself to wildlife action and intriguing vegetation at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.
If You Go By Air:
Tucson International Airport is about 90 miles north of Bisbee. Take I-10E to AZ-80E. Follow signs for Bisbee.
For More Information:
Main Street in Bisbee.
Queen Mine Tours:
Where to Stay in Bisbee:
Copper Queen Hotel
11 Howell Ave.
20 Brewery Ave.
Eldorado Suites Hotel
55 OK St.
The Jailhouse Inn
8 Naco Rd.
Where to Eat in Bisbee:
35 Main St.
The Bisbee Grille
2 Copper Queen Plaza
The Bisbee Coffee Company
2 Copper Queen Plaza