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Bisbee, Ariz., makes name for itself with copper, creativity

Carolyn White

Once known as the Queen of the Copper Camps, the little town of Bisbee, Ariz., now bills itself as “a modern blend of creativity, friendliness, style and romance.”

Tucked high into the Mule Mountains of southern Arizona, it has cooler temperatures than Phoenix and Tucson (72 is the average) which makes it the perfect place for year-round exploring.

Along with its many historical buildings, museums, antique stores, and breweries, this somewhat quirky town has a major claim to fame — it is home to one of the largest copper deposits in the world. The initial discovery was so vast that the burgeoning town had to be moved in order to mine it. Today a giant, fenced-off, reddish crater remains as silent testimony to the importance of this metal.

In 1877, while searching for renegade Apaches in the Mule Mountains, Lieutenant John A. Rucker and his tracker, Jack Dunn, came across the first signs of copper. Shortly after the first claim had been staked, prospectors rushed to the area, which was later named Bisbee after Judge DeWitt Bisbee, who financially backed the first mine.

Known for its beautiful red and gold sheen, copper has long been prized as one of the best conductors of heat and electricity. But it has actually been around since ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, when it was obtained on the Island of Cyprus by the Mediterranean Sea.

Due to its many color variations, copper remains one of the most popular metals used by jewelers and artists. Necklaces, earrings, and head gear made from it have been found in Egyptian tombs. Dry air will preserve the bright color, but once copper has been exposed to dampness, it turns reddish-brown due to oxide formation. Longer exposure to the atmosphere causes it to form verdigris, or a greenish hue, giving it an ancient appearance.

A metallic element, copper has been used to line the bottoms of tea kettle and wash pans. It is a great cover for the bellies of boats because it cannot be corroded by salt water. It’s used in casings for gun ammunition. Mixed with other alloys, it has gone into small coins, brass, gun metal and bronzes.

But the ability to conduct electricity is what makes copper so valuable. Nine times heavier than water, once melted and cooled it is so elastic it can be pulled into fine wire. Copper was in high demand by the turn-of-the century for producing street car wires, telegraph systems and phone lines and helped spread America’s industrial revolution. Once discovered in Bisbee, it was the town’s most important trade.

By 1951, open-pit mining (as opposed to underground) became the best way to remove low-grade – but still high in demand – copper ore. Sacramento Hill, north of Bisbee, was gradually consumed as the Lavender Pit was dug close by. Forty-six tons of rock were first removed before miners were able to reach the actual ore. The resulting crater, which can be seen off Route 80, grew to be 900 feet deep and 300 acres wide and eventually yielded over a billion tons of copper.

Steps, or benches, were cut into the edges of the Lavender Pit and filled with explosives that broke up the rock layers. The unwanted rocks were spread around the southeastern area of the Mule Mountains. Many other minerals were found along the way, and their colors can be seen as one looks into the crater: the red is oxidized sulfate; the gray, granite porphyry; the yellow, breccia (which are rock fragments surrounded by clay); and purple, a mix of limestone and pebbles considered waste rock.

After mining operations stopped in 1974, Bisbee quickly reinvented itself as Arizona’s version of New York’s Greenwich Village, and it remains a popular tourist stop. Leaning heavily towards arts and entertainment, it has attracted many musicians, authors, actors, glass-blowers, muralists, sculptors, jewelers and milliners who now call it home.

In jaw-dropping displays of engineering, numerous structures have been built against the hillsides and can only be reached by a series of steep steps. Because of this, the most unique physical fitness challenge in the U.S. is held in Bisbee over the third week in October. Called the Bisbee 1000 Great Stair Climb, it requires participants to run up those stairs and down the streets.

“People come from all over the world to do this thing,” said Annette Duncan, a former resident. “It is like the mecca for stair climbers.”

One of the most famous houses can only be reached by 82 concrete steps. In a lot of areas, there’s no place to park your car; residents and renters alike must leave theirs in nearby parking lots.

“Bisbee is literally nestled in a canyon. The houses, hotels, and buildings were built into the sides of the canyon with winding streets,” she continued. “It’s an amazing place to live.

“There’s definitely a lot to see in Bisbee. It retains that 1880’s feel. There’s a really cool opera house that’s still in operation. And the hotel Copper Queen was once considered the place to go – it was mentioned in the movie “Tombstone.” The cultural aspect is amazing, as well, because of all the artists. There are some really wonderful galleries. And Brewery Gulch is an entire street with microbreweries and bars. It’s been that way for over a century.”

Bisbee has even retained the look and feel of the 1950s on one quirky block. Cars, store fronts and even a gas station remain frozen in time to the delight of visitors.

The little town might not be the main hub of southern Arizona anymore — where nearby Tombstone residents went to buy supplies in the olden days — but Bisbee remains the gem that was built on copper. ❖




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