Copper Queen Mine
Text and Photos by Janet Webb Farnsworth
At the turn of the century, the community of Bisbee, located just east of the Mule Mountains in southeastern Arizona, reigned as one of the premiere copper mining towns in the world. Today, tours of Bisbee’s famed Copper Queen Mine rank as one of the area’s top tourist attractions, drawing visitors from throughout the United States and abroad.
The Mule Mountains hid a wealth of gold, silver and copper until the late 1870s, when a government scout, Jack Dunn, discovered rich ore deposits while chasing Apaches. Dunn and a couple of partners grubstaked a prospector, George Warren, to explore the area and file claims on their behalf. Warren, however, spent a good share of his time drinking, and what few claims he did file were not in Dunn’s name, but in his own.
During a drunken spree two years later, Warren bet one of his claims that he could outrun a man on horseback in a two-hundred yard dash. He lost the race, and he forfeited his claim to what turned out to be one of the richest copper mines in the West.
By 1908, Bisbee, with a population of over 20,000, was Arizona's largest town and "the liveliest spot between El Paso and San Francisco." Homes sprouted from the steep canyon walls. Forty saloons lined Brewery Gulch. The mines ran day and night. The Phelps Dodge Company became the largest operator, and copper was the life blood of Bisbee.
For 95 years, the hills surrounding Bisbee produced copper and impressive amounts of gold, silver, lead and zinc. Eight billion pounds of copper were mined. Finally, the deposits were exhausted. Operations were no longer economic. The mines shut down.
By the 1970s, Bisbee was on its way to becoming a ghost town. Then, artists, filmmakers and tourists discovered the quaint charm of the old mining camp. Today, the Copper Queen Mine tour is a popular attraction; I could not resist taking it. After purchasing my ticket, I was fitted with a bright yellow slicker, a hard hat and a battery pack flashlight. Our tour group of 30 straddled seats on a "man-cart," a small train that would carry our tour through the mine. I worried about my claustrophobia, but the train stopped about 100 feet inside, and anyone who felt uncomfortable could easily walk out and even get a refund. Everyone stayed for our tour, and surprisingly, I wasn't bothered by my claustrophobia.
The tunnels are dark, cool and narrow. The temperature is between 47 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I was glad I had worn long pants and carried a light jacket. Sandals are not recommended. Our guide, Baker Olmstead, a former miner, explained what we were seeing, described the mining methods used, and told stories of the days when Bisbee was "Queen of the Mining Camps."
A tour of the Copper Queen Mine will stir your interest in Bisbee, and I think you'll want to spend a couple of days exploring the eclectic mix of history, shops, galleries and Victorian architecture.
My favorite place to stay is the Copper Queen Hotel. This elegant four-story hotel hails back to the days when Bisbee was the oasis of culture between New Orleans and San Francisco. Built in 1902, the hotel and its dining room have served as a gathering place for the West's social elite, including Teddy Roosevelt, John Wayne and General Black Jack Pershing.
Today, the hotel’s antiques, old photos and its charming air of a bygone era bring many visitors like myself back for return stays. The rooms have high ceilings. Views from the windows will tempt you to get out your camera. The long hallways are lit by copper light fixtures. The old switchboard still stands behind the check-in desk. They say there's even a friendly ghost who sometimes wanders the hallways. The dining room offers some of the best food in the area.
Bisbee is located approximately 90 miles southeast of Tucson, 25 miles east of Sierra Vista and 22 miles south/southeast of Tombstone. It is the county seat of Cochise County.
Copper Queen Mine tours, which children love, last 1 hour and 15 minutes. Please call for current mine tour times. The mine is open seven days a week, closing only for Thanksgiving and Christmas days. For information, reservations, and group rates call 866-432-2071 (toll-free) or 520-432-2071 (local).
This tour is not handicapped-accessible. Visitors must straddle the seat on the man-cart. There is some walking through shafts and some climbing of stairs. There are benches where you can sit if you don't wish to climb.
There are hotels and motels in Tombstone or Benson with something for every taste and price range. For more information and a complete list. Click on city above for rates, availability and reservations online.
Camping & RV Parks
For more information, contact:
Bisbee Chamber of Commerce
P. O. Box 944,
(48 Main St.)
Bisbee, AZ 85603
Phone: (520) 432-6923
Arizona State Parks: 602-542-4174
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