Downtown Bisbee: A view of downtown Bisbee, Ariz. shows a town built during the mining boom days. Bisbee has become a vibrant tourist community and home to former miners, hippies, artists, retirees and others. The downtown area still boasts hotels more than 100 years old such as the Copper Queen Hotel seen on the left side of the photo. Photo by Gary Warren/ladailypost.com
Lyric: The former Lyric Theater has been repurposed as a real estate office and other shops. Most of the downtown buildings have been home to multiple types of businesses throughout the town’s history. Photo by Gary Warren/ladailypost.com
By GARY WARREN
Formerly of Los Alamos
In the beginning there was mining, which stayed active until the 1970s, then the shut down and the town was written off as a “has been”, then the hippies discovered the little town in an ideal location, and they arrived in numbers. Such is the diverse and varied history of Bisbee, Ariz.
Bisbee was founded on mining in the late 1800s and officially became a town in 1902. For years the town thrived as copper, silver, gold and other precious metals were mined around the area. Bisbee sits in the Mule Mountains about a dozen miles from the Mexico border in southeast Arizona. Being in the mountains, the elevation of Bisbee is 5,500 feet, which contributes to its ideal climate.
Copper was the primary metal mined in Bisbee and it became known as the “Queen of the Copper Camps”. In the 1950s, copper was becoming more difficult and less profitable to mine underground and the owner of the mines at the time, Phelps-Dodge Corp., decided to try open pit mining. There is evidence of the mining era everywhere in Bisbee including the huge open pit not far from downtown.
Then in the 1970s the mining era came to an end. The town was quickly becoming a ghost town until the hippies discovered Bisbee. With very cheap real estate and a town full of historic buildings and houses in the mountains with an ideal climate, the hippies and some retirees began buying up the town and Bisbee was reborn.
Along with the hippies came a free-spirited lifestyle. Art and creative endeavors replaced the mines, and the town began to revive itself. Today, the art and creative scene has thrived, but cultural events have increased, and the town has become a tourist destination.
Bisbee, Ariz. sits on the sides or steep hills and the streets wind and climb much like the streets of San Francisco. Downtown has numerous outdoor stairs that lead from street to street. There is even a school in the area with four levels and each level having a ground floor entrance!
When walking the streets of downtown Bisbee today, one will see numerous restaurants, coffee shops, art galleries, antique shops, gift stores and other businesses that cater to the lifestyle of Bisbee and the tourists that fill the streets every day. The old Victorian era architecture is seen all over the downtown area and most have been painted bright and cheerful colors. The vibe of the community is quirky and whimsical, alive and vibrant, an artist’s haven, which everyone should visit at least once. I saw a sticker in the back window of a car that read “Bisbee, Arizona, Like Mayberry on acid” and which sums up the town today.
There are many things to do while visiting Bisbee. A full day can be spent walking around old Bisbee downtown admiring the architecture and the details of the work in these buildings and houses. As you walk, you can’t miss the colorful exteriors of the structures as well as the artwork scattered around town and neighborhoods.
Visitors can take a tour of the Queen Mine in which a hard hat and headlamp as well as a bright colored vest are provided to each visitor for the tour. Visitors ride into the mine on a small train that carried miners and supplies into the mine every day when the mine was in operation. The tour takes visitors about 1,500 feet into the mine which, like caves, remains a constant temperature of about 50 degrees. The train makes a few stops which give visitors a chance to walk around in the former workspace of miners. The tours are led by former Phelps-Dodge miners that truly give a personal perspective on what working in the mine was like.
A drive by “the Lavender Pit” (named after a person not the flower or color) can”t be missed. The Lavender Pit is more than 300 acres in size and 900 feet deep and sits just a short drive from downtown. The carved walls look like an ancient structure as the wall stair steps up the 900 feet. In the bottom of the pit is a pool of water. The entire scene reminds one of the environmental impact and destruction that this method of mining has on the land.
The Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum in the downtown area is filled with artifacts and elements of the mining era in Bisbee. Visitors can learn a lot about mining and the various ore that was mined in the area for almost 100 years as well as other notable facts about the town itself.
Another area of Bisbee to visit is Erie Street, or Lowell, Ariz. During the mining era, Lowell was a separate town but has since been annexed into Bisbee. What’s left is Erie Street, which is only about a quarter of a mile long, but it is like stepping back in history. Old department stores, a car dealer and garage, a former Harley-Davidson and Indian motorcycle shops and an old Shell gas station are just a few of the sites on Erie St. Vintage vehicles from the 40s through the 60s are parked along the street and inside lots. There are a couple of small shops open but the main business still open is the “Bisbee Breakfast Club”, which serves breakfast and lunch daily to visitors.
When visiting Bisbee, visitors can stay in one of the old Victorian style hotels downtown, an Air B&B in the downtown area or at the Shady Dell, a collection of retro RVs in a park not far from downtown. Bisbee is a great side trip when visiting the Phoenix or Tucson areas. We have visited the town multiple times and will be back again. Bisbee is a fun town to visit and explore. You never know what you’ll find around the next corner.
Editor’s note: Longtime Los Alamos photographer Gary Warren and his wife Marilyn are traveling around the country, and he shares his photographs, which appear in the “Posts from the Road” series published in the Sunday edition of the Los Alamos Daily Post.
Hillside View: Bisbee, Ariz. was built on the lay of the land and it is evident in this view of some downtown buildings in the foreground and residential properties as they climb up the hillside. Numerous outdoor stairs lead from street to street as a way of navigating through the maze of old Bisbee streets. Photo by Gary Warren/ladailypost.com
Downtown Street: This view of a street in downtown Bisbee shows the colorful decor of many of the buildings. Many downtown buildings and homes in the downtown area are painted in various colors, which illustrate the personality of this old mining town today. Photo by Gary Warren/ladailypost.com
Queen Mine: The Queen Mine operated for decades before closing in 1975. Today former Phelps-Dodge miners serve as tour guides on the tour, which takes visitors 1,500 feet underground into the mine. Shown is the front of our train as it enters the Queen Mine for the tour. Photo by Gary Warren/ladailypost.com
Mine Tour: Visitors on the Queen Mine tour are allowed to exit the train and walk around as the tour guide explains how each area was used when the mine was active. The former miners were able to portray what it was like entering and working in the mine far underground every day. All visitors were required to wear a hard hat with headlamp and a bright colored vest during the tour. Photo by Gary Warren/ladailypost.com
Erie Street: Erie Street is in the community of Lowell, Ariz., which was later annexed into Bisbee. Erie Street shows several of the old business buildings and the street is lined with vehicles mostly from the 1940-1960s era. Notice the Greyhound Bus has cleverly been renamed ‘Strayhound’. This street is a must see while visiting Bisbee. Photo by Gary Warren/ladailypost.com
The Lavendar Pit: The infamous Lavender Pit, a short distance from downtown Bisbee, shows the effects and destruction caused by open pit mining. This pit is more than 300 acres in size and 900 feet deep. The pit is a big part of Bisbee’s history but not a pretty part! Photo by Gary Warren/ladailypost.com