At first glance, Bisbee can spur memories of San Francisco, with Victorian-era brick and stone buildings scattered across rugged hillsides and narrow streets with names like "Brewery," Subway," "OK," and "Opera" from its heyday as a copper boomtown.
No wonder. At its height, Bisbee was nicknamed "Little San Francisco" and was the largest city between the city by the bay and St. Louis, with 25,000 residents bent on extracting copper and other mineral riches from the Mule Mountains or providing the services required by the miners and the mining industry in 1916.
Bisbee, however, lacked San Francisco’s other economic strengths and gradually declined until the 1970s, when a mix of artists, entrepreneurs, and hippies moved into the town, drawn by its history, its beauty, and the potential locked in the Victorian-era buildings that had become rundown but remained structurally sound and inexpensive.
Many of the buildings in the historic district that is now called Old Bisbee have been restored, with boutique hotels, restaurants, art galleries and other businesses filling what had been empty storefronts. A two-story brick building that once served as the headquarters for the Phelps Dodge Corp.’s copper operations was refurbished to house the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum, and the Queen Mine was opened for tours.
The residential area north of downtown, which also is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, maintains the look of the boomtown of 1916, with frame houses almost on top of each other, set into terraces or benches cut into the steeply sloped hillsides and connected by long stairways or by roads that zig-zag up the hillsides.
Bisbee has a vibrant arts scene and special events ranging from tours of historic homes and buildings to the La Vuelta de Bisbee bicycle race and the Bisbee 1,000 Great Stair Climb, a 5K race that takes participants up 1,000 stairs on the city's hillsides. The town sits at an elevation of 5,538 feet and is located 90 miles southeast of Tucson and five miles north of the Mexican border.
Visitors can take the Queen Mine Tour, riding converted ore cars 1,500 feet into what was one of the area's best-producing copper mines until its closure in 1975.
The Brewery Gulch also is a favorite of tourists, though it no longer boasts the 50 saloons that served the town's rowdy miners at the turn of the century. Nearby is the historic Copper Queen Hotel, originally built by Phelps Dodge to serve visiting dignitaries.
Bisbee was Arizona’s copper mining capital for nearly a century, a boomtown that made fortunes for some, brought a steady living to many more. The "Queen of the Copper Camps" was responsible for a fourth of the world's production of copper during World War I and transformed the Phelps Dodge Corp into a major American company. The area's rich ores were formed when molten rock rose through limestone layers 185 years ago, making way for copper-rich water to flow into faults and hit limestone.
The town was named in 1880 for San Francisco's DeWitt Bisbee, who invested $80,000 in the Copper Queen Mine that year, giving a shot in the arm to the fledgling town and its mining industry. He died five years later without ever setting foot in Bisbee. The original claim for the mine had been staked in 1877 based on geologic formations that suggested veins of silver, but miners for the Copper Queen Mining Co. discovered high-grade copper ores in 1884, as did miners for Phelps Dodge working an adjacent claim under the direction of mining engineer James Douglas. The two companies merged their efforts to form the Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Co. in 1885, and the mine proved to be the area's most productive. Douglas, who had taken a 10 percent interest in the Phelps Dodge mining operation as his compensation, was named manager of the new company.
The mining was spurred by a jump in copper prices in 1880 from 12 to 20 cents a pound as electricity grew in popularity, and Bisbee's population jumped from a few hundred to several thousand. The town grew up on the hillsides opposite the mines, starting with the business district in Mule Gulch, which became known as Main Street, and then a second one at the entrance to Brewery Gulch. The growth then moved up the hillsides, with narrow, steep streets and small homesites following the contours of the canyon and gulches where they were built. Some homes were accessible only by staircases or footpaths. Lots were small and densely clustered, with small yards.
By 1890, Brewery Gulch had developed into Bisbee’s notorious tenderloin district, including saloons, gambling houses, opium dens, rooming houses, and brothels. By 1900, Bisbee had 6,000 residents, a quarter of whom were employed by Copper Queen Consolidated, and the company had built key elements of a company town in the flat area where Mule Gulch and Brewery Gulch met – a company hospital, a company store, a company-built library and the company's own hotel, the Copper Queen.
The growth of the mining industry, however, had also brought smelters to Bisbee that spewed noxious, sulphurous smoke into the town and mine headframes, slag dumps, and a large railroad yard and station that blighted the area. Smelting was transferred to the new town of Douglas in 1904, and the Bisbee smelter was dismantled and the railroad tracks and station removed, leaving no sign of them today.
Miners were well-paid, earning $3.50 to $4.50 for an 8-hour workday in 1902, and they typically received cash from the company safe. Most of the residents were immigrants from England, Ireland, Mexico, Finland, Austria, and Serbia. While it was a diverse community, there was discrimination, with the highest-paid, underground mining jobs reserved for northern Europeans while Mexicans were limited to laborer jobs on the surface and Chinese workers were not allowed to stay in town overnight.
Brewery Gulch boasted saloons and brothels open 24 hours a day to serve miners regardless of shift and earned the nickname "the wildest place in the West." But the town also had a stock exchange, a popular opera house, the state's first community library, and the state's oldest baseball field.
Miners dug 7.7 billion pounds of copper from beneath Bisbee’s hills between the discovery of rich veins by soldiers from the U.S. cavalry in 1877 and Phelps Dodge’s decision to stop digging the Lavender Pit on the edge of town in 1975. With the copper came 355 million pounds of zinc, 324 million pounds of lead, 11 million pounds of magnesium, 100 million ounces of silver and 2.7 million ounces of gold. The total value of the metals from Bisbee was estimated in 1975 at $6.1 billion. Turquoise also has been found as a byproduct of copper mining, with the local variety nicknamed "Bisbee blue."
In 1906, the Calumet & Arizona Co., a competing copper mining firm, began building the new community of Warren six miles southeast of Bisbee as a planned development with wide, straight streets and homesites large enough for front and back yards. The company also built a trolley between Warren and Bisbee. The company built the Warren Ballpark to bring the national pastime to miners and their families.
In 1908, a fire destroyed 500 homes and most of Bisbee's commercial district along Main Street, but residents had rebuilt by 1910, this time with commercial buildings made of brick. Bisbee had a population of 9,105 in the 1910 Census, with nearly twice that in communities that sprang up at the edge of town.
Bisbee peaked in 1916 as wartime demand drove copper prices to record levels and brought swift increases in production. The population hit 25,000, and the mines produced a record 96,848 tons of metal. That same year, James Douglas retired as president of Phelps Dodge, and he was succeeded the following year by his son Walter.
In 1917, the town earned a place in labor history with the Bisbee Deportation, in which 1,300 striking miners and their supporters were rounded up by the sheriff and a posse of 2,000 citizens at the urging of Phelps Dodge officials. The move was prompted by a lengthy strike in wartime by miners, led by the Industrial Workers of the World, over wages and working conditions. Phelps Dodge had rejected their demands and sought to break the unions, and Cochise County Sheriff Harry Wheeler led the deportation.
About 2,000 miners and supporters were arrested, then assembled at the Bisbee Post Office and marched two miles to the Warren Ballpark, where the sheriff oversaw them from a car mounted with a machine gun. About 700 of the detainees were released after they agreed to denounce the IWW and go back to work. The others were loaded into railroad boxcars and transported Hermanas, New Mexico. Only a handful ever returned.
The year 1917 also saw Phelps Dodge begin operating under its own name, replacing the Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Co., and start surface mining on Sacramento Hill just east of Bisbee. Phelps Dodge went on to merge with Calumet & Arizona in 1931 and acquire the only other mining operation in the area, Denn-Shattuck, in 1947.
Bisbee began to slowly decline after 1917, though it did not fade from the scene as other Western mining camps did as copper prices plummeted during the Depression of the 1930s. One reason is that Bisbee became the county seat for Cochise County in 1929, replacing Tombstone. An art deco-style courthouse was completed in 1931.
Mining employment failed to bounce back as the country emerged from the Depression because the new open-pit mining operations required a much smaller workforce. Phelps Dodge started the Lavender Pit east of the Sacramento Hill operation in 1952. When the copper ore ran out in both mines, the Lavender Pit was shut down at the end of 1974.
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Population: 5,996 (Census Bureau estimate for 2008)
Land area: 4.8 square miles County: Cochise (Bisbee is the county seat)
Altitude: 5,538 feet above sea level
Climate: Hot summers, mild winters, and moderate humidity.
Annual precipitation of 13 inches.
Summer weather: July has an average high of 94 and low of 65. Monsoon storms in the summer can bring severe thunderstorms with heavy rain, large hail and strong winds.
Winter weather: Snows are rare. January has an average high of 62 and low of 30.