Bisbee, Ariz., mines the past and the future

Historic town finds that artistry is a natural resource, too

Destination: The Southwest

April 24, 2005|By Michael Martinez | By Michael Martinez,Knight Ridder / Tribune

In Bisbee, Ariz., the copper mines that define the town's past have gone unexplored by anyone but tourists for three decades. The proud old buildings along Main Street and Brewery Avenue stand perfectly preserved.

But beneath its frozen-in-time facade, Bisbee is a hybrid: abundant in heritage, yet very hip.

How so? Poke your head inside turn-of-the-century shops and browse the colorful pottery, jewelry, art and antiques. Attend a gallery opening, listen to live alternative rock at a local saloon, enjoy a fine meal at one of several restaurants.

Bisbee, located in southeastern Arizona about 100 miles from Tucson, is a town of artists, writers and poets, having transitioned from a city that once depended on its natural resources to a haven for the creative.

"It's gone from T-shirts and caps to real upscale," an older fellow in a fedora told me as I sipped a local brew at a downtown saloon. "It's very nice."

He was right. You would think the town of 6,090 would be at odds with itself, unsure if it's a bastion of mining history or an enclave for artisans and retirees. But the locals don't seem to care. And visitors can enjoy both sides.

Underground tour

To appreciate its past, visit the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, then burrow 1,500 feet into an old copper mine on the Queen Mine Tour.

To enjoy its present, do a little window shopping.

The museum is a wonderful collection of memorabilia and photographs explaining the town's evolution from its first days as a mining camp in 1885 to a bustling city and cultural hub of 25,000 residents by 1908. By 1975, the mining had stopped and most residents had moved out of the section of town known as Tombstone Canyon and found housing elsewhere.

The museum is full of interesting artifacts, including tools of the early miners and period costumes, but upstairs you'll also see an array of large specimens pulled from deep within the Mule Mountains that sustained the town: copper, of course, but also gold, silver, malachite, azurite and cuprite.

To understand what it must have felt like to work the mines, the Queen Mine Tour loads guests on a small bench-like train that burrows deep into one of many dormant tunnels (one claustrophobe in our group bailed out after we had gone a few hundred feet). Visitors don helmets and slickers and carry battery-powered lanterns into the cold, dimly lit mines that workers explored for 10 hours at a time, usually for about $3.50 a shift in the early days.

Little has changed below ground. There are old elevators, phones, tools and lumber left behind. Tours are conducted by retired workers who were among the last to search for copper veins. (More than 8 billion pounds of copper were taken from the mines.) From above ground, open pits -- stair-stepped deep into the ground -- are visible by car.

The mine tour is just a short walking distance from downtown Bisbee, and it's not difficult to imagine what it must have looked like as a bustling community a century ago. The buildings along Main, Brewery, Subway and OK streets appear as they did long ago, from brick exteriors to bay windows. Some former miners' boarding houses have been converted into bed and breakfasts, and the Copper Queen Hotel, built in 1902, still welcomes overnight guests.

Old-time look

A walking tour might take you from one shop selling antiques and collectibles to another displaying American Indian jewelry and art. You can buy honey mustard from killer-bee pollen (very tasty), candles, gifts made from copper and colorful metal art.

There are several bars -- called saloons in these parts -- and the most notable is the Stock Exchange in Brewery Gulch, which once offered investors the latest market reports from New York. The saloon still retains its original green blackboard. Several bars offer live music on weekends, but you're just as likely to find a poetry reading at a cafe or a classical concert at the Bisbee Women's Club.

To preserve the town's authenticity, city leaders require that any restoration or rebuilding must resemble a structure's original appearance. There's a Circle K convenience store in town, but it was built before restrictions were passed and is away from the primary shopping areas.

The original post office is still operating, and, perhaps in an attempt to retain its charm, no one in Bisbee has mail delivery. Walk into the post office and you'll see some 9,000 boxes, with residents walking in and out all day to pick up mail.

But modern conveniences are evident, too. You can find an ATM across the street, and a few miles outside of town there's a large shopping center with fast-food restaurants.

You've got to like a town that embraces its past but doesn't mind living in the present.

When you go

Getting there: A number of airlines offer connecting service to Tucson from BWI. From Tucson, drive east on Interstate 10, then south on Route 80 to Bisbee. The drive is just shy of 100 miles.

Where to stay:

Shady Dell, 1 Douglas Road, about a mile past downtown Bisbee

520-432-3567

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