This open pit copper mine is one of the first things you see as you drive into Bisbee and this is the exact view from our trailer. We do have a 6-foot fence that prevents us from rolling down the hill into the bottom.
We are camped out at Queen Mine RV Park for a week; this is the only campground in the area that is within walking distance to Bisbee. It is by far the most unique campground we have found ourselves in so far. The mine operated from 1915 until 1975, when the richest deposits of copper were mined out. What remains is a gigantic multi-coloured gash in the earth – 4000 feet wide, 5000 feet long and 850 feet deep. Each “step” is 50 feet high.
The view of Bisbee from the front of our campground:
Bisbee had one of the richest mineral deposits in the world, with eight billion pounds of copper extracted, as well as three million ounces of gold and significant deposits of silver, lead and zinc. We decided it was best to begin our exploration of Bisbee with a tour of the underground mine.
The entrance to the mine is just at the foot of our campground, so we hopped down the hill to put on our “protective” gear before jumping on the train that took us 750 feet underground.
We were lucky enough to be at the front of the line, so I got the front seat and had a bird’s-eye view.
The entrance to the mine:
Our 80-year-old guide Benny worked in the mine for over 20 years. He was a knowledgable and humorous guide who told us that at one point he was making $45 a day and at his peak up to $2000 a week with bonuses – big money for the time. “Do I have anything to show for it?,” he asked us. “I’ve been married twice.” Alcohol, as they say, may have been a factor – a coy reference to the hard-working, hard-playing lives of the miners.
The tour took about an hour as Benny talked about the challenges, dangers and huge discomforts of mining; including the rats that swarmed underground, but were allowed to live as they were the veritable canaries in the coal mine. They would sense tremors and if they started running, it was a clue for the miners to follow suit.
In case you have ever wondered how bathroom needs were handled in an underground mine, Benny and his assistant demonstrated. The two-seater (no men ever sat on the throne at the same time!) was on a short rail and the miner could just crank it down a distance for privacy, then bring it back again for the next person.
Back up on terra firma, it was time to explore the town. Bisbee is an unusually lovely mining town; there was so much money flowing for so many years that the main buildings were quite ornate and for the most part have been well maintained. Most businesses are set in the flat of the canyon and the houses rise up on the hills. In its heyday, there were over 50 saloons and numerous brothels. We assume the brothels are gone, but there are still a few saloons left from that era.
Built in 1902, St. Elmo is the oldest bar in Arizona. Although patrons are now required to stand outside to smoke and a sign advises that firearms are not permitted, there is a huge whiff of the wild west that lingers. It might have been fun to pop in and soak up the atmosphere, but the stools were filled with bikers (not the respectable kind) who were already partying – we kept walking.
After the mine closed in Bisbee in the ’70s, the town went into significant decline, but was saved by the influx of artists who were attracted to the beauty of the surroundings, the cheap real estate and the wonderful climate. The population shifted to a more bohemian crowd and has become a magnet for free spirits and independent thinkers.
Businesses are as eclectic as the inhabitants.
You won’t be in Arizona for long before you’re checking out cowboy boots and a decent custom-made hat.
While every Bisbee resident we’ve met has been very friendly, there are a number of signs around town that remind you the frontier spirit runs strong – they are not to be messed with.
Duly noted – we will not be climbing over razor wire onto your rooftop.
Parking in old Bisbee is at a premium, but really – who would park in someone else’s garage?
A little irony?
Even the Episcopalian preacher can get a bit touchy over parking.
Walking in Bisbee is a feast for the eyes – every corner gives you plenty to think about. Gorgeous copper sculptures leading up to a private home.
An old school that is re-purposed as an art center.
One of the theatres in town – $5 movies, live performances and vegetarian chili.
One of Bisbee’s main downtown streets.
A Bisbee landmark
Street art in the most literal sense. An entire wall is hung with paintings – most of them with questionable artistic merit.
There were also a few photographs, including this haunting image. I had heard that the teardrop tattoo speaks of death (either accidental family member or intentional murder).
I really wondered what this complicated tattoo means and what on earth this tortured man had been through.
The more we travel about the U.S. in our trailer, the more I realize how little I know about this world. That may be a sanity-saver.
Besides seeing delightful scenery and thought-provoking art, a walk in Bisbee will challenge your lungs and legs. As soon as you leave the canyon floor, it is all uphill and most of the winding streets have numerous steep staircases to access from one level to another.
Every October, Bisbee hosts the Bisbee 1000 – a 4.5 mile event that involves climbing nine staircases up the many twisty roads. We can’t imagine – we were winded after one staircase.
The view is worth it though and the roads take you past some pretty homes.
We are in Bisbee for another three days; it is a handy location for a number of day trips, which I will tell you about in an upcoming blog posting.
We are very close to the Mexican border here; the tiny town of Naco was subjected to the building of a controversial wall that seemingly no-one wanted. We were curious to see it for ourselves.
Before I begin, let me tell you that we have spoken to numerous Arizonians about The Wall and their feelings about it and, to a person, they are adamantly against it. They understand the need for security – but they feel erecting a wall is like killing a flea with a hammer, only way less effective.
If anyone should be concerned about the influx of “bad hombres” that are clamouring at the border gates, it should be people living in border towns. Nothing could be further from the truth. As one woman in Nogales told us, ” We are completely integrated – we are friends with each other, we marry each other, we are bosses and employees together, our kids go to school and play ball together.”
Back in 2011, it was proposed to build a 7.5 mile wall at the border crossing between Naco AZ and Naco Mexico to replace the existing fence. When Arizona government officials pushed through for this wall, they assured everyone they would raise $50 million from private donors. In fact, they raised only $270,000. In 2017, the building of the wall went ahead – with a price tag of $35 million that was absorbed by taxpayers – for just 7.5 miles. Naco residents were not notified – and homeowners woke up one morning to concrete trucks and dust… and eventually this – an 18-foot high wall running along their back yards.
It destroyed the communities of Naco on both sides. In Arizona, the traffic that formerly ran right down Main Street was now diverted to the edge of town. A number of businesses have since closed their doors and the town has a desolate, ghost-town feel.
This is what a modern border wall looks like:
An inside view. No question it will keep people out – not even a gopher could make it though this line of defense.
The border between the United States and Mexico is 1,954 miles. Since 7.5 miles of wall have already been completed at a cost of $35 million, how much will the rest cost?
Being in Arizona has blown my preconceptions right out of the water. The people we have met so far (no matter what state they are from) have been charming, warm, interesting and forthrightly American! We continue to learn a lot.