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Bisbee: Mining history and modern charm

Carolyn Schwartz
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
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BISBEE, Ariz. – We had only one day to spend in the town known as the “Queen of the Copper Camps.” But Bisbee, Ariz., is one of the best-preserved historic towns in the Southwest, on a par with Colorado’s famous mining settlements, and it pours on the charm.

Two hours from Tucson, Bisbee is situated a mile above sea level, not far from the Mexican border. Most people reach the mining-town-turned-funky-enclave on Highway 80, after climbing a steep grade through the copper-colored Mule Mountains.

Despite its Sonoran desert environs, the century-old town has a San Francisco feel. Grand, Victorian-style buildings are situated along the narrow, winding Main Street and the terraced hillsides above town are sprinkled with both Victorians and brightly painted former miners’ cabins.

Bisbee’s glory days date from 1877, when prospectors attracted the interest of some San Francisco investors, among them Judge DeWitt Bisbee, for whom the town is named. It was primarily copper (but also gold, silver, turquoise, lead and zinc) that made Bisbee’s fortune. Large-scale mining operations began in earnest within a few years and by 1910 the town’s population had climbed to 25,000. According to the local Chamber of Commerce, Bisbee was the largest city between New Orleans and San Francisco during those years. It might have been one of the liveliest too. The reported presence of nearly 50 saloons and bordellos along Brewery Gulch seem to back up that claim.

Today many artists call the town home. Aging hippies and urban refugees have for many years dropped out of the rat race to restore Bisbee’s old brick buildings and convert them into bed-and-breakfasts, inns, art galleries and restaurants. Between the rough edges left over from the mining days and this new cultural atmosphere, it’s no wonder that Travel and Leisure Magazine recently named Bisbee one of the “Best New American Destinations,” and compared it to such arts-oriented spots as Aspen and Santa Fe.

Bill and I start our one-day visit with a short, steep hike up “B-hill,” the looming slope at the south end of town that’s crowned with a huge white-painted “B.” From there, 360-degree views allow us to look deep into the open-pit mine that fueled the town’s economy until the late 1970s. The hilltop also provides a great view of the bustling village nestled below. A nice accompaniment: the tantalizing aroma of roasting beans from the Bisbee Coffee Company wafting upward on an early spring breeze.

Time is short, so we don’t sign up for the town’s biggest tourist draw, the Queen Mine Tour. For this train ride deep underground, participants suit up in yellow slickers, mining hats and headlamps. Tales of life “beneath the surface” are provided by retired miners-turned-tour guides.

Since shopping and eating are the main recreational activities in “Old Bisbee,” we dig in to do our part. Our 4-hour foray only scratched the surface, but I’ll throw out the names of a few shops, restaurants and lodgings we ambled through. Retail sleuthing could occupy a happy few days in Bisbee, and outdoor activities could provide even more.

As to the former, here are a few suggestions:

Christina Plascencia’s 55 Main Gallery displays original art, clothing and handcrafted jewelry. She even brings in psychics to entertain browsers in the gallery she describes as “a holistic venue for showing the essence of Bisbee.” Also on Main Street, Optimo Custom Hatworks sells Panama Hats (from Ecuador) to shelter your face from the harsh Sonoran desert sun. The Killer Bee Guy offers locally-produced honey butters as well as spicy Horseradish Honey Mustard in a nook of a shop about two bodies wide. Czar Jewelry and Bisbee Blue (just outside “Old Bisbee” on route 80) offer quality gemstones mined in the area; the latter is the exclusive dealer of the acclaimed Bisbee Blue turquoise. The Bisbee Bicycle Brothel is full of vintage road bikes, primarily from England and Italy along with interesting modern bikes as well.

Dining and lodging options are equally eclectic in this historic hillside burg. Of the former, we could only personally test two venues: the delightful Cafe Cornucopia on Main Street, where the breads, quiches and soups are all home-made, and the local’s favorite, Bisbee Breakfast Club. The latter is located in the Lowell district outside “Old Bisbee,” but the super-size cinnamon buns alone (breakfast served all day!) are worth the drive a mile south. Cafe Roka is said to compare favorably with fine restaurants throughout the country, but make your reservations far in advance!

As for lodging, the choices range from The Copper Queen, Bisbee’s grande dame hotel in the heart of the historic district, to a nine-room, restored, 1918 red-brick schoolhouse.

If I’d made a reservation four months in advance, I would have chosen the kookiest overnight accommodation of all – The Shady Dell Trailer Court. This cluster of nine restored vintage Airstream trailers, mostly from the 1940s and ’50s, are furnished with period artifacts, chenille bedspreads and radios tuned to swing music. Another period treasure called Dot’s Diner serves standard diner grub right next door.

All you need to pack for a night at the Shady Dell is a poodle skirt and some blue suede shoes!


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