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Bisbee Arizona

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At an elevation of 5,300 feet in the Mule Mountains, Bisbee is an anomaly: situated at the far southeast corner of the state so as to be close to the Mexican border, yet hidden in the mountains with a moderate climate that makes rose growing a prime avocation in the town.

There's a lot of Old West, mingled with brick Victorian buildings, and a sense of survival through a century in which copper mining has become only a memory of richer days past.

Yet, the town is amazingly well preserved -- with narrow, winding streets that climb the sides of canyons and seem best-suited for mountain goats.

A Place of History

Two venerable hotels invoke the rich history of this place, as do such historical and formerly hysterical sections of Bisbee as Brewery Gulch and the town's curving Main Street. Bisbee is a must-see on your tour of southern Arizona. While Tombstone is mostly a museum-piece -- a re-creation of the Wild West town where the Clantons met the Earps -- Bisbee is for real, a living example of the early mining towns of Arizona, the rest of which grew quickly and then died just as fast.

The Mule Mountains were first a part of Apache country. Before the 1870s, only a few white prospectors dared to enter the area, now called Cochise County. But the discovery of major copper deposits changed all that, for both the Apache and the European settlers. The army drove the Apache to less valuable lands, and mining claims were staked in the mountains by 1877. Phelps Dodge invested in a large number of claims in 1881, and copper mining began in earnest. By the turn of the century it was a company town. Phelps Dodge built the Copper Queen Hotel, still a grand old hostelry with a wonderful period bar.

In 1908, most of Main Street was destroyed by fire, but the town was rebuilt. The new, sturdier construction of 1910 is still on show today. Mining continued until 1975 when the town turned its attentions to tourism and retirement living.

Old miners' hostels became refined bed and breakfast inns. Saloons have been turned into antique shops and art galleries. Two mines (long closed to mining) have become tourist attractions with an underground mine tour and open-pit viewing. The charm of a lost era still remains in this fascinating little city.

What to See & Do

A visit to Bisbee is, necessarily, a trip back in time and the best way to gain an understanding of the fascinating history of the area is to visit the several historical museums that chart the development of mining in the Mule Mountains. The Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum is located in the former Phelps Dodge General Office, at 5 Copper Queen Plaza. This is one of Old Bisbee's most impressive buildings (520-432-7071). The Historical Society Museum, at 37 Main Street (with free admission) has displays and artifacts on the pioneer history of the city. Mulheim House (207 Youngblood) is perhaps the finest example of nineteenth- century Victorian architecture in Bisbee (520-432-4461).

Most of the town's antique stores are located along Main Street, as is the famed One Book Bookstore (38 Main St.). This is the writing and sales office of Walter Swan, who wrote Me 'n Henry, a nostalgic book about a young boy and his older brother growing up on an Arizona homestead. Swan opened his store to sell the book and his unique storefront operation quickly became a national institution. He wrote more books and opened the store next door to sell them -- The Other Book Bookstore. Swan is in his store on most days to swap stories and autograph copies of Me 'n Henry. His other books include The Old Timer's Cookbook and a book of stories for children.

Two of Bisbee's former mines should be on your list of things to see. The Lavender Mine is a large open pit. The main attraction is the Queen Mine, the former Phelps Dodge operation, which now has a guided tour of an underground slope at 118 Arizona Street (520-432-2071). The tour office is located south of the Old Town, off the U.S. 80 interchange. Tours start daily at 9 and 10:30 am, at noon, and at 2 and 3:30 pm. A van tour leaves the Queen Mine site for a tour of surface mines and the historic district at 10:30 am, noon, and 3:30 pm.

Then, take a walking tour of Brewery Gulch and the rest of the historic district, following a map which is available at the office of the chamber of commerce.

Gardeners will enjoy the displays of desert plants at Arizona Cactus & Succulent Research Inc., located 6 miles south of town (8 Mulberry Lane, at Bisbee Junction). The botanical garden contains more than 750 varieties of cacti and other plants of the high desert. The non profit center has an extensive library with photographs and research materials on cacti and succulents. There is a series of greenhouses, and classes on landscaping with desert plants are given on a frequent basis. For information, phone (520) 432-7040.

There are two old hotels that offer a great glimpse of the 1900-1910 period and, even if you're not staying in one of them, I recommend at least a visit. The Bisbee Grand Hotel was built in 1906, promptly burned to the ground, and was immediately rebuilt. Located on Main Street, it was restored to its original Victorian style in 1986. There is a saloon, theater, and Ladies Parlor on the ground floor, with rooms upstairs (nine rooms and two suites). It operates as a B&B. The Copper Queen Hotel, which overlooks Main Street from its perch around the corner from Brewery Gulch, was the mining company hotel, built in 1902. The saloon is just the place for a glass of Bisbee's fine hometown beer (Dave's Electric Beer) or stronger libations. Fine dining is offered in the Dining Room. Rooms start at about $65 (for two). For details on these and other Bisbee accommodations, see the next Bisbee page. The town is filled with fine bed and breakfast homes and inns, several of them former miners' boarding houses. There are several conventional motels and four RV parks -- one with its own golf course.


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