January 18th ~ Bisbee, Arizona
Bisbee, another rough and tumble mining town is just a short drive from Tombstone. Instead of the silver that put Tombstone on the map, it is COPPER that created the surge here.
In 1877, cavalrymen were doing reconnaissance in the Mule Mountains looking for renegade Apaches. Instead of Indians, Lieutenant Rucker found signs of copper. Shortly thereafter, claims were staked and prospectors came in droves, hoping to find their fortune.
Today, Bisbee has a complex composition of Wild West history, bygone days where saloons and bordellos occupied the famed Brewery Gulch district, a now shuttered Queen Mine that offers daily tours, the scared landscape of an above ground mining operation named Lavender Pit and a modern-day freedom vibe where visitors are invited to kick-back, be yourself and enjoy the vibrant art and music scene.
“In 2016, Bisbee earned the title of Best Historic Small Town in both Sunset magazine and a USA Today online reader poll” ~ Wikipedia
Led by former miners, this is an excellent way to ask an “old-timer” what it was really like working below ground back in the day. Reservations may be advised during the summer, but we were able to walk in 1/2 hour early and gain admission on the next tour.
Your “ticket” is a brass round medallion that is to be pinned on your shirt or jacket and visible at all times. (More about the history behind this below)
After being outfitted with a hard-hat, bright yellow net vest or heavy yellow jacket, a rugged leather belt that holds the battery pack for your individual light, and a brief safety introduction, you straddle a narrow bench on tracks to be pulled deep into the narrow, dark, rocky bowels of the mountain.
The original method of breaking up the rock was by drilling deep holes with a metal rod. This was all done by hand, originally by one person at each position. They were issued 3-4 candles at the start of the shift. The candle was held in place, above where they were working, in a metal holder with both a pointed end and a hook to hold the candle firmly in place for them to see where they were working.
The man, (sometimes as young as 16) would have held a long metal rod in one hand, tapped with a mallet with the other hand, and after each tap, the rod was turned, in effect drilling into the rock.
Later two-man teams were formed, where one man held and turned the metal rod while the other man hit the end of it with a large sledge-hammer. One needed to really trust your partner swinging a sledge-hammer near your head, and needless to say, there were many injuries and broken bones.
Luckily, he stopped short of hitting the spike or me 🙂
Right next door, at the top of the hill where Ellie Mae is parked, we have an overlook into the Lavender Pit, which is an open-pit copper mine.
In operation from 1950 to 1974, with approximately 86 million tons of ore, which yielded about 600,000 tons of copper, with gold and silver as byproducts.
Turquoise, known as Bisbee Blue was another by-product and is reportedly amongst the finest found anywhere in the world. An additional 256 million tons of waste was removed.
A short walk brings us into Historic Bisbee.
The museum was originally the headquarters for the Copper Queen Mining Company. It is the first rural affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution nationwide. The museum itself is small, but well done, as you might expect with its connection with the Smithsonian.
As I mentioned above, we were issued a metal medallion which was pinned on our clothing as our ticket to enter the mine. The museum further explained the purpose and how these were originally used.
It was called “Brassing In”. Instead of punching a time clock, or some other method of keeping track of their hours, the miner was issued a brass medallion at the start of their shift. Each brass had a number stamped on it and was a vital piece of identification and must be kept on their person at all times while in the mine.
It was to be turned in to the timekeeper at the end of their shift before leaving. This was a way that the crew chief could immediately know that all the miners were safely out of the mine. If someone did not return then it was assumed that they were lost or injured and a search was quickly organized.
Another more grizzly reason that they were issued the brass tags, was that in the event of a cave-in or explosion, the tag would survive and help identify the remains.
The rest of the town was fun to simply wander through, although we do not recommend doing so on a Wednesday as many of the shops were closed. It appears that weekends are the prime time here and many businesses take advantage of the slow weekdays to take some time off. This may be different during summer months.
One shop also boldly stated his preference for taking this Friday off as well.
“The Bisbee 1000 Stair Climb is a five-kilometer run through the city that traverses 1,034 stairs. Billed as “the most unique physical fitness challenge in the USA!” by the organizers, the Climb includes runners being serenaded by musicians at various locations among the stairs. The event has grown to include the Ice Man Competition, designed to honor the history of men delivering blocks of ice by hand before the advent of refrigeration. In the Ice Man Competition, entrants race up 155 steps carrying a ten-pound block of ice with antique ice tongs.” ~ Wikipedia
We were originally planning on continuing on from here to the Chiricahua National Monument (pronounced cherry-cow-wha), but we have received storm warning for the next several days that include up to 36 inches of snow. As much as we love the snow, it is NOT what we want to encounter in our RV.
Another change of plans will now take us back north toward Benson where we plan to visit the Kartchner Caverns State Park. Stay tuned.
GRATITUDE MOMENT: Today I am grateful that above ground open-pit mining is being contested by many environmental groups. Since I know next to nothing about the mining industry, I hate to even voice an opinion. However, the blight on the scenery, the contamination of streams and waterways, the damage to vegetation resulting in the loss of local biodiversity is a concern that we should all be aware of.