I guess the law of averages caught up with us . . . two days of sunny skies had passed, so why not throw in a rainy one for a change? Good thing we did the Bisbee Stair Climb yesterday—at least one of today’s activity wouldn’t be affected by inclement weather.
If you want to get the “real feel” of Bisbee and learn about what made it great, then you must go to the Visitor Center and sign up for the Queen Mine Tour.
Bisbee was founded on mining and owes its success in many ways to its booming copper mine. With an orebody of 23% copper, the mine produced an extraordinarily high grade (most mines of that era could profitably mine ore containing 3-4% copper). It wasn’t surprising that the Queen Mine was one of the richest copper mines in the US and yielded over 8 billion pounds of copper during its 100-year history. The mine opened in 1877 and closed when Phelps Dodge discontinued mining operations in the mid-1970s.
After the copper-mining operations closed, the mine employees began to leave Bisbee. Then the Bisbee mayor came up with the idea of opening a mine tour through a portion of the world-famous Copper Queen Mine. Volunteers jumped in to help, clearing thousands of tons of fallen rock and re-timbered the old workings. A federal agency approved a large grant to Bisbee to help the project get up and running. The tour began business in February of 1976, employing ex-miners to run the operation. And visitors began coming in. Bisbee was back in business.
After dressing up like miners, we rode a narrow-gauge car 1,500 feet into the mine. Our tour guide, an ex-miner, told us all about the process of mining copper, from the earliest days to more modern times. A very interesting experience.
A wall rigged with more than a dozen sticks of dynamite, we learned how miners used fuses of different lengths to create sequential explosions. Then they were left with a lot of big chunks of rock that needed to be loaded and carted away.
After spending the morning in the mines, the rain still hadn’t let up. Not to be deterred, the town of Tombstone was a short drive away. Why not go check it out?
Just hearing the name Tombstone, Arizona, conjures up images of the lawless Old West, Gold Rush fever and the search for silver, gunfights and Boot Heel Cemetery. Okay, I expected it to be full of kitsch, but maybe (?) I’d find some touch of authenticity. At least, that’s what I went looking for.
When prospector Ed Schieffelin headed out this way in March of 1877, friends told him the only thing he’d find among the Apache and rattlesnakes would be his own tombstone. But he set out anyway, alone, and staked a silver claim, proclaiming it Tombstone. When Ed struck it rich, his brother Al said, “You’re a lucky cuss.” And the Lucky Cuss Mine became one of Arizona’s richest. Other claims bore such descriptive names as Contention, Tough Nut, and Goodenough.
The town incorporated in 1879 and grew to a population of 10,000 (now there are around 1,400) just five years later. It was said that saloons and gambling halls made up two of every three buildings in the business district. The famous OK Corral gunfight took place here in 1881—and historians still debate the details. The town’s riches attracted many crooks and Apaches, who, along with political corruption, gave the region considerable notoriety. Shootings and hangings in the 1880s kept Boot Hill Graveyard busy. Fires nearly wiped out Tombstone on two occasions, and flooding of the mines by 1886 came close to driving the final nail in the town’s coffin. Still, Tombstone, “the town too tough to die,” managed to survive, and now, even on such a cold and rainy day as this, it’s amazing how many visitors come to town.
We needed a place to eat that would take the chill out of our bones. We found the remedy to all our requirements at Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, definitely a local institution. Formerly the Grand Hotel in 1881, it was the place the Earp brothers were staying the night before the fateful shootout. Lot’s of Old West memorabilia hanging on the walls, an old ornate bar stretching the length of the dining room, the movie Tombstone playing on a big screen, a guitar-playing singer performing western songs and waitresses dressed in saloon-fancy clothes. And the food wasn’t too bad either. Soon we found ourselves caught up in the spirit of an old western town. It was a good place to hang out and while part of the dreary day away.
Tourism, built on the legend of a single gunfight, has replaced mining as an economic force in Tombstone. As a result, the town today is more movie set than actual town. True, the town’s bones haven’t been entirely erased; the storefronts are just more “cleaned up” than they have ever been. It’s a much more presentable appearance than back then, when things were dark and dirty.
Of course, it didn’t help to have a day that was itself rather dark and dreary . . . but the “show” must go on!
And speaking of shows—the town still re-enacts the famous “Gunfight at the OK Corral” despite less than ideal conditions and a minimal audience. Their guns will blaze, the bad guys fall and they all ignore the pouring rain!
A visit to Tombstone can’t be complete without checking out Boot Hill. A common name for many an old west cemetery, the name implies that many who are buried here died “with their boots on,” meaning they died violently, such as by gunfight or by hanging. While the first recorded graveyard named “Boot Hill” was located in Dodge City, Kansas, that, along with the ones in Deadwood, South Dakota and here in Tombstone, are probably the most famous.
Wet, cold, but enlightened as to having a glimmer of a once rugged frontier town, we departed the town of Tombstone. We learned a little we didn’t know, we had a few hours of entertainment, and took some classic images with us. The spirit of the West can be found in Tombstone—just give it a chance!
Next morning it was time to pull up stakes . . . heading out on a much-improved day!
From a couple of colorful Old West places,
Airstream Travelers, Chris and Melinda