Reading the history of Bisbee, Arizona, is like reading the history of a person with multiple personalities.
Founded in 1880, the town is built in Mule Pass Gulch among the Mule Mountains. Copper was discovered in 1875, and by 1878 copper was paying off so well that smelting operations began by the next year. The town was named after Judge DeWitt Bisbee, a financial backer of the Copper Queen Mine.
Once known as “the Queen of the Copper Camps,” this Old West mining camp proved to be one of the richest mineral sites in the world. With the discovery of copper--not to mention gold, silver, lead and zinc that came from the Mule Mountains--came many people. Phelps Dodge built a railroad into Bisbee and began its operations here in 1892. And so, by the early 1900s, the Bisbee community, with a population of over 20,000, was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco.
Associated with this growth were the rough edges of the mining camps. The notorious Brewery Gulch, with its 47 saloons and brothels was considered the "liveliest spot between El Paso and San Francisco."
Within a few years, the polluting fumes of smelters choked the canyons and gulches where the town had developed. Those who could afford it built their homes amidst the cleaner air on the hills above town.
And yet, in this same period, Bisbee had become one of the most cultured cities in the Southwest. It was home to the state’s first community library, a popular opera house, the state’s oldest ball fields, and the state’s first golf course.
As it became a far more pleasant place to live and work, Bisbee became known as the "Little San Francisco." Ironically, like the City by the Bay, Bisbee experienced a fire in 1908 that ravaged most of its commercial district along Main Street. But by 1910, most of the district had been rebuilt and remains completely intact today.
We signed up for the Lavender Jeep Old Bisbee Tour, for which the description read something like: "Where you couldn't drive yourself, and if you did, you wouldn't know where you were anyway." As we drove up Ok Street, we passed the Eldorado Suites Hotel, still well-maintained and doing a good business.
Because of the narrow streets and turns like the one shown here, the town still has a vintage 1940 fire truck, because anything more recent could not navigate these streets.
On our way to overlooks at the tops of the hills of Bisbee, we passed a former home--a very small one-room home--that had been converted to a garage into which a VW Beetle just fit.
We also passed the old four-story high school beside a steep hill. The interesting feature of this school was that because the hill was so steep every floor had a ground-level entrance.
Upon seeing the stairs ascending to homes at higher levels, we commented to Tom our tour leader, "The folks who live there must be in very good shape."
"Yes, for the homes on the top couple of levels, there are no roads, so these stairs are the only access the homes. The people also have to be good planners and make every trip count, since there's no mail delivery either. Everyone has to go to the post office for mail," was his answer.
Tom also mentioned that every October there is the Bisbee 1000, The Great Stair Climb. Participants in this event traverse over 1000 steps in nine sets of stairs and cover numerous back roads at a mile-high altitude.
(By the way, Runners' World has selected the Bisbee 1000 as the October 2010 Featured Event in the USA. That date is October, 16th--in case you want to mark your calendar.)
By 1975, mining ceased to be a major part of the economy of the area. Bisbee then became known as a great retirement area and artist colony. Throughout the town, sculptures this size appear both on public areas and around private homes.
Located along Brewery Avenue, St. Elmo has been in operation since 1902--and from some reports, is just as rowdy as ever.
This building is a former brothel. We were struck by the headboards that are cemented into the yard to represent the "cribs" of the women who worked there. (By the way, the building is for sale. Asking $175K.)
New owners are planning to restore this pair of rowhouses.
From its peak population of about 35,000, Bisbee is down to about 8,000.
This is a town that warrants several return visits.