Welcome to Bisbee, Arizona, source of famous Bisbee Blue turquoise, artists’ haven, and one of the self-styled quirkiest towns in America.
Bisbee sits five miles from Mexico’s border, in the high desert, too high for saguaro cacti or palos verdes. I was lucky enough to spend the day there with a couple of generous, enthusiastic locals with staggering historical knowledge.
Bisbee’s main tourist attraction is its mining history. The whole town is honeycombed with 2000 miles worth of underground copper mines – the distance from California to Florida – and the Queen Mine remains open today for guided tours.
The Bisbee mines were discovered by Jack Dunn, who was hunting Apaches at the time. The first levels of the mines were dug out by candlelight over years, using 4 candles per day to make up a 12-hour shift. Unlike coal miners, copper miners didn’t get black lung, but they did get silicosis from silica dust until they learned to use water hoses to weigh the dust down.
They mined hematite (which, once refined, produces gold), azurite, malachite, copper, silver, lead, and zinc. Scare sticks of dynamite were used to get the ore down. The boss rode an underground quadricycle about 7 miles per day checking on the men. Miners were middle upper class, earning about $45/day.
Between 1909 and 1930, trained mules were the mine’s most valuable workers, lugging tons of ore. The mules were brought in from Mexico, then went to school to learn English (truly!). They lived underground for the duration of their service, with vets, stable boys, and the best possible care. After retirement, they donned blindfolds to recover from their mine-induced night blindness, then lived out their old age as local pets.
The underground mines were shut down in 1975. The copper price had plummeted and the copper was too labor intensive to be worthwhile. Pit mining and slough mining were much more cost-effective. Bisbee’s pit mine, the Lavender Pit, is a pretty amazing site too.
After the copper mines closed, lots of artists moved in, making Bisbee a curious mix of ramshackle vestiges of the mining industry and flourishing art.
Bisbee’s high school is featured in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Built into a hillside, it has a ground floor entrance on each of its five stories!
Bisbee is also home to the Bisbee 1000 Stair Climb, where athletes race up and down 1,034 steps among Bisbee’s steep hills. Many of the staircases are beautifully decorated, and the competitors are accompanied by live musicians stationed amongst the slopes.
Check out the Stock Exchange Saloon in Bisbee. During Prohibition, this bar became a real outpost of the New York Stock Exchange! The ticker tape and stock board still decorate the building, which has since returned to its original function.
A true treasure of Bisbee is Warren Ballpark, the oldest continually functioning ballpark in the United States. Yes, older than Fenway! Many baseball legends have run its bases. Betty Bays, the only woman to hit a home run in Yankee Stadium, and Anne Henry, member of the Rockford Peaches, are both from Bisbee; Anne Henry still lives there and mows her own lawn to this day.
Warren Ballpark was also the site of a brutal event known as the Bisbee Deportation (1917), during which 1,300 striking miners were loaded onto cattle cars at gunpoint and driven out of the state.
Thanks, Bisbee, for an outstanding day!
One year ago today: Ward off demons with these potions