Last Updated on May 19, 2023
Arizona ghost towns were not uncommon after mines closed and workers moved on to more lucrative prospects. But unlike other towns where mine employees and their families left and entire communities disappeared into the desert dust, Bisbee did not die.
It’s true that the ghost of copper haunts the town. Its presence can still be felt everywhere when visiting Bisbee, AZ. After all, it was copper that put Bisbee on the map.
This intrepid town, however, lived on, thanks to an influx of creative free spirits who were drawn to this once raucous mining boom city.
They breathed new life into what could have been a dying place and made it their home. As a result, Bisbee has been restored into an eclectic art town full of galleries, restaurants, and fascinating small hotels. So much so that Bisbee was voted “Best Historical Small Town” by readers of USA Today.
Mining is Born in Bisbee
In 1877, a reconnaissance detail of U.S. army scouts and cavalrymen ventured through the Mule Mountains searching for renegade Apache. What trackers discovered instead was an outcropping of ore and mountains filled with rich minerals.
The rumor of silver in “them thar hills” began attracting prospectors in the late 1870s. A few years later, their diggings caught the interest of some San Francisco investors, among them, Judge DeWitt Bisbee, for whom the town is named. Silver had been mined in nearby Tombstone, but it was the rich vein of copper and other less-than-precious metals that would make Bisbee’s fortune.
Mining in the Mule Mountains proved successful and the population of Bisbee soon soared. By 1910, it was the largest city between New Orleans and San Francisco. Thousands of miners toiled underground removing six billion dollars-worth of minerals from the mines, mostly in copper.
Bisbee sported nearly 50 saloons and bordellos along Brewery Gulch to keep the cowboys and miners entertained. As Arizona’s most populous town, Bisbee enjoyed its reputation as “the liveliest spot between El Paso and San Francisco.”
With the growing industrialization of America and the expanding role of electricity in modernizing our nation, the copper mines thrived. Two world wars and the Korean War stimulated the demand for even more copper. In almost a century of mining, 8 billion pounds of copper, 102 million ounces of silver and 2.8 million ounces of gold along with a vast amount of zinc, lead and manganese were harvested from the mines.
However, by 1974, ore reserves had largely been depleted and mining operations closed the following year.
Rebirth as an Eclectic Small Town
Tucked into a narrow valley and built into the steep slopes of Tombstone Canyon only 90 miles from Tucson, the Bisbee of today was actually reinvented in the early 1980s. Aging hippies and burned-out urban dwellers seeking to escape the stresses of city life began arriving. The cool mountainous terrain and Victorian architecture conjured up a sort of 1960s San Francisco feel and artists were drawn to Bisbee like a moth to a flame.
Bisbee remains one of the best-preserved historic small towns in the Southwest. Old brick buildings still line narrow winding streets, and miners’ shacks cling along the sharp slopes overlooking downtown. Concrete stairs climb the steep canyon sides to more old homes perched precariously on towering hillsides.
When visiting Bisbee, AZ, you’ll find the locals are a quirky mix of retired miners and their families, hippie jewelry makers, enterprising restaurateurs and boutique owners from all over the world. Bisbee is truly a walk-through history that made my husband and I feel as if we’d somehow wandered into a time warp connecting the present with the past.
Copper Queen Mine and Hotel
For a fascinating lesson in mining history, we paid a visit to Bisbee’s famed Copper Queen Mine. Tours are led by Bisbee’s retired copper miners. Visitors don yellow slickers, hardhats and miner’s headlamps before descending 1,500 feet underground by rail car to a cool 47-degree mine shaft containing the old deserted workings of the famous mine.
Bisbee’s historic small-town legacy is preserved, not only in its architecture and mining landscape, but in the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum located in the center of town. A Smithsonian affiliate, the old red brick building was constructed in 1897 to serve as the Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Offices. Colorful exhibits, photos, and artifacts offer a glimpse into the everyday life of Bisbee’s early mining community.
Built over a century ago, the Copper Queen Hotel is the grand dame of Bisbee. General John “Black Jack” Pershing, John Wayne, Theodore Roosevelt, and mining executives from all over the world have stayed at this hotel which maintains the ambience of the Victorian era Old West.
The hotel also allegedly hosts three resident ghosts and a journal located at the front desk contains descriptions of guests’ encounters.
Mailing a postcard from the Copper Queen Post Office is a must when visiting Bisbee, AZ. This historic relic of the past is a natural gathering site for residents who come to pick up their mail in lockboxes as there is no home mail delivery.
The Copper Queen library, the oldest, continuously-operated public library in Arizona, established in 1882 is also located in this historic site.
Shopping in Bisbee is an eye-candy experience. Its array of galleries, boutiques and design shops is impressive. Fine art, handcrafted jewelry, pottery, Adirondack furniture, antiques, collectables, vintage clothing and metallic creations are just some of the items on display. A quirky shop called Wildflower Jewelry & Art creates pieces from repurposed roofing copper, vintage tins, aluminum cans, discarded puzzle tin boxes and even plastic Starbucks gift cards.
For a small town, Bisbee boasts 40 restaurants offering a myriad of choices from cafes and cantinas to saloons and fine dining. Santiago’s is a colorful Mexican restaurant with a fun and playful vibe. Café Roka, hailed as the best dining in Bisbee uses locally sourced ingredients and is housed in a fascinating 1907 historic art deco building. It certainly deserves all the accolades it has received.
Is Bisbee Still Haunted?
Supernatural sightings and ghostly apparitions have occurred not just in the Copper Queen Hotel, but in other venues such as The Oliver House, a former bordello now a bed and breakfast and The Lavender Pit, an abandoned open pit copper mine.
Even the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum is reputed to be a hotspot for paranormal activity. Visitors have shared stories of unexplained footsteps, disembodied voices, and the feeling of being watched while exploring the exhibits.
Whether one believes in the supernatural or not, Bisbee’s ghostly tales add an extra layer of intrigue to the town’s unique character. But it’s best said that perhaps it’s the ghost of copper itself that permeates the town and gives Bisbee its rich legacy.