Queen of the Copper Camps & The Town Too Tough To Die
Apparently our one day beneath the earth’s surface at Kartchner Caverns wasn’t enough for us because our next sightseeing expedition would take us to Bisbee, AZ, a town that was once known as the “Queen of the Copper Camps”. Here we would take the Queen Mine Tour led by a retired miner that would lead us 1500 feet underground into a copper ore laden hillside.
Bisbee was about a 55 minute easy and scenic drive from Kartchner Caverns State Park. Heading out, our first order of business was breakfast. A stop in Sierra Vista at Mom’s Kitchen for a decent breakfast of eggs, bacon and hash browns, all for $4.69 satisfied that requirement.
Nestled in the spectacular mile-high Mule Mountains, Bisbee was once a thriving mining town discovered in 1877 and over the next 100 years would produce more than eight billion pounds of copper and three million ounces of gold, as well as significant amounts of silver, lead and zinc.
Incorporated in 1902, by 1910 its population swelled to more than 25,000, but once the boom times were over in the 1950’s, the population dropped to less than 6000. After the mines closed in the 1970’s, the town reinvented itself as an artists’ colony, populated with eclectic shops, galleries, Victorian architecture and restaurants while still managing to pay homage to its mining heritage and history. In 2016, it was touted as America’s best historic small town by USA Today.
Before we visited here, we didn’t know much about the town and certainly didn’t realize that there is a dark side to the history of Bisbee. It involved the illegal kidnapping and deportation of over 1300 striking mine workers (out of a population of 8000) in 1917 by the owners of the mine, the Phelps Dodge Corporation. These miners worked in deplorable conditions (including lack of mine safety practices, poor pay, and camp living conditions) and tried to unionize. In response, Phelps Dodge deputized 2000 people, formed a posse, arrested the workers then loaded them into cattle cars for a 16 hour journey across the desert with no food or water. They were shipped to New Mexico where they were abandoned with no housing and told never to return to Bisbee. Armed guards were posted on all roads leading into town to insure that no deportees returned. It wasn’t until President Wilson intervened that the workers were allowed to return home after several months. No action was taken against the Phelps Dodge Corporation.
As we walked along looking at some of the historic buildings and shop windows I was wishing we had more time to explore this quaint town. If you plan to visit, check out the Discover Bisbee website where you can read about the history of the town, discover tours that are offered, find restaurants and learn about the films that have been produced here.
If you want to stay in a historic (and perhaps haunted) hotel, book a room as the Copper Queen Hotel constructed between 1898 and 1902 and supposedly haunted. It has been featured on at least two paranormal investigation shows; the 3rd season of Ghost Hunters and the 6th season of Ghost Adventures.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum which is the first rural affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, creating a partnership between the nation’s largest museum and one of its smallest. Outside the museum were interesting displays of some of the early mining equipment that was once used.
A sign titled “Swat A Fly, Crop A Prize” provided an explanation of the huge metallic flies crawling up the side of the building (and on other buildings in town). In 1912 they held a fly swatting contest in an attempt to eliminate typhoid carrying flies. The winner killed 5000 out of 500,000 flies (I wonder who did the counting), winning $10! The sign suggests that despite those efforts there were just as many flies the following year.
If you like climbing stairs, Bisbee is the place to be – there are lots of them, each with anywhere from 50 to 100 or more steps leading up to houses built on the mountainside. These stairways originally were dirt paths traveled by mules but were converted to wood steps and finally cement, thanks to the WPA during the Depression. Today Bisbee is the home of the Bisbee Annual 1000 Great Stair Climb, a 4.5-mile course which features nine staircases (over 1000 total steps) connected by winding roads. Sounds challenging!
Anyway back to our journey underground. Queen Mine Tours (located immediately south of Old Bisbee’s business district, off the U.S. 80 interchange) offer five tours daily, seven days a week at 9:00 a.m., 10:30 a.m., Noon, 2:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. The cost for the hour long tour is $13 for adults, $5.50 for ages 4-12 and children under 4 are free. Reservations especially during peak times are recommended.
There is also a campground here on a terrace above the mine tour visitor center. We took a quick ride thru and there were several big rigs present including at least one tag axle coach. At least some sites appeared to be full hook up. The tight entrance and steep grade looked like it could be a little challenging however.
The Visitor Center has some interesting photos, displays of mining equipment and of course, a gift shop which helped to pass the time while waiting for our tour to start. When it was time, everyone in the tour group was outfitted with hard hats, a miner’s lamp with a battery pack and a yellow vest (you get a slicker in colder weather). We all looked very stylish! Our guide then instructed us to go outside and straddle the “train” which would carry 30 of us into the mine. For those of you who might be concerned about claustrophobia, the “train” stopped about 100 feet inside so anyone who felt uncomfortable could easily walk out and even get a refund. It was not a problem.
The tunnels were dark and narrow but with our miner lamps turned on, we could see ahead of and all around us and free to direct the light wherever we wished.The temperature below is always cool, averaging 47 degrees, but it was in the upper 50’s on this day. Our guide, a retired Dodge Phelps miner, was extremely knowledgeable, telling us about the history of the mine, recounting in detail what a day in the mine was like, and explaining the techniques used to extract the copper and transport it to the outside.
Hard to imagine how difficult and dangerous a life it was particularly in the early days when everything was done by hand. Hand-held “drills” (a sledgehammer and a steel rod) were used to bore twenty or so carefully arranged holes into the rock, then black powder (later sticks of dynamite) were packed inside them in a formation that would break the rocks in a particular pattern that would facilitate easy extraction of the ore.
Initially the loose ore had to be hauled out by hand, a dangerous and arduous task. Eventually mules were used which reduced the time it took. At one of the last stops, everyone chuckled when he explained how the portable toilet significantly increased production and kept the tunnels from getting too putrid.
With the advent of electricity and modern equipment such as powered rotary drills, excavators and motorized trams life became a little easier but no less dangerous for the miners. Fascinating and informative tour! Highly recommended!
After we left Queen Mine, we stopped at a nearby overlook for a view of the big hole in the ground known as the Lavender Pit which is an open pit mine that covers an area of 300 acres and is 900 feet deep. It is not named for its color but instead named for Harrison M. Lavender, the Phelps Dodge mining engineer responsible for making unprofitable low-grade copper bearing rock of the area into commercial copper ore. Production from 1950 through 1974 totaled 86 million tons of ore averaging about 0.7% copper, or about 600,000 tons of copper produced, with gold and silver as byproducts. About 256 million tons of waste were stripped. Another byproduct, Bisbee turquoise or Bisbee Blue, is among the finest turquoise found anywhere in the world.
Even though it was getting late, we decided to take a slightly longer route back to Kartchner via AZ-80 which would take us through Tombstone, AZ. Although it was also a rich, silver mining town, Tombstone is probably more famous for the host of western legends who walked there over 130 years ago such as Wyatt Earp and “Doc” Holliday who became household names after the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which resulted in the killing of the Mclaury’s and Billy Clanton.
We were warned by friends that it was very touristy here but I guess it’s one of those places that you have to see anyway. Many of the original buildings still stand and some have bullet holes still visible from its rough and tough days in the late 1800’s when the town was definitely “wild” with its 110 saloons, 14 gambling halls and several dancing halls with brothels.
The good news was that being late in the day, it wasn’t crowded. The bad news was that it was too late to witness the O.K. Corral reenactment of the gunfight or visit the Historama, the multimedia history narrated by Vincent Price or the museum of the Tombstone Epitaph, Arizona’s oldest newspaper. Regardless it was fun just walking around getting a feel for the Wild West seeing “cowboys” and “gunslingers” roaming the streets and looking in the windows of the saloons and shops.
Our plan was to return the next day to spend some time here and to visit the Boot Hill Graveyard. But the next day came and we were tired, or maybe just plain lazy, so we decided to spend the day at Kartchner relaxing. After all, there’s only so much sightseeing one can do.
On that lazy day and our last day in Benson, we went to the Horseshoe Cafe & Bakery where I enjoyed the usual bacon and egg breakfast ($6.99) while Rob had his usual corned beef hash and eggs. Good food!
Before leaving we walked across the street to the Benson Visitor Center, which used to be a railroad depot, something we had meant to do earlier during our stay. In it’s day, Benson was the railroad hub, providing vital transportation routes for the silver bullion pouring out of the mining settlement in the late 1800’s. Without Benson, world famous Tombstone may never have achieved its notoriety.
It was here we learned about a very important part of Benson history, the Apache Powder Company, which started operations as a major manufacturer of explosives in 1922, supplying the mining industry. By 1923 their production was over one million pounds of powder.
A quote from the General Manager said that “we sold enough powder in one year that if the sticks were laid end to end they would reach from San Francisco to New York and back again.” The name was changed to Apache Nitrogen Products, Inc. in 1990. Apache is still in business today still selling to mines and selling fertilizer based products to the agriculture industry. On display was an “angel buggy” which would hold up to 400 pounds of nitroglycerin. It was called an angel buggy because “if you hit a bump or jostled the load, you could set off an explosion and immediately become an angel.” Sounds a little scary to me!
The next day we would reluctantly say goodbye to Benson to continue our journey west. It would be a short drive of only an hour to Tucson. More to come!
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