Old West Boomtown — Bisbee, Arizona

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on October 12, 2003

A hundred years ago, Bisbee, Ariz., could boast of being the rowdiest, richest town in the West. It also claimed to be one of the largest, its early-1900s population of more than 20,000 a result of one of the richest mineral sites in the world.

Neither was an idle boast. Though now a town of 6,090—its mines long played out—Bisbee’s strikes produced 3 million ounces of gold and more than 8 billion pounds of copper, as well as silver, lead, and zinc found in the rich Mule Mountains that frame the town. Briefly, Bisbee was one of the largest communities between St. Louis and San Francisco.

Around 1880, when copper was discovered, mining camps and boarding houses sprouted along the sides of two mountain gulches—Mule Gulch, later Main Street, and Brewery Gulch—and Bisbee was born. Brewery became notorious for its barrooms and boisterous miners, and Bisbee seemed destined to become as lawless as the nearby town of Tombstone.

Yet, if some miners were content to carouse in the saloons, others could visit the Copper Queen Library. Set up in a corner grocery store in 1882, it was established by some of the principals of the Copper Queen Mining Co. in an attempt to offer more civilized diversions. It apparently worked, because the library still is there, in quarters built in 1906-07, its two floors sitting atop the town’s post office. Librarian Janet Ball says it’s likely the oldest continuously operating library in the state, a pedigree, she says, “I’m working with state researchers to verify.”

Eventually, as the mines closed (the last big one in 1975), Bisbee changed, though it didn’t forget. Today, the town sports the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum and, over Labor Day weekend, celebrates its boisterous past in Brewery Gulch Daze.

“There’s a lot going on here today,” says Donna Gaab, Cochise County librarian. (Copper Queen Library is a unit of the county system.) Once-wild Brewery Gulch, part of the town’s historic district, is lined with shops and old homes, and “civilized diversions” have won out over the town’s former rowdiness. In the late 1970s, artists began moving to the former boomtown. Gaab was one of the many who came to Bisbee then, when housing was cheap.

“Old houses now cost a fortune!” she laughs. “But the artists are still around, and this is a place where they can get involved in things.” Bisbee now boasts an active amateur theater group and frequent musical concerts. Galleries and artists’ co-ops dot the main streets, together with antique shops, restaurants, and stores catering to lovers of the Old West.

And history still hides in Bisbee’s basements and garages. Gambling chips have been found in the cellar of The Main Street Inn—from the days when a gentlemen’s club occupied the first floor—and when Laura Harvey loaded a truck with what she thought was trash from the garage of her new home, her eye fell on a land grant signed by Theodore Roosevelt. The truck was quickly unloaded. Six years later, she and her family are still “sifting through the old papers and photographs for treasures.”

One of the town’s niftiest attractions is the Shady Dell Motel, a collection of vintage aluminum trailers from the 1940s and ’50s serving as rental units. They sit next to Dot’s Diner, itself a “trailer” that was, for a time, a diner in Los Angeles. Moved by flatbed truck to the Shady Dell in 1996, it has achieved a fame all its own. Both the diner and the motel have received national television and magazine coverage.

Ed Smith, one of the Shady Dell’s owners, points to Chenille bedspreads, black and white TV sets showing old movies, and record players.

“If you’re in a trailer and you’re listening to music or you’re watching TV, you can’t look around and see anything modern,” Smith says. “That’s part of the rules.”

While Bisbee has become a modern town, it’s a point of pride that you can still look around and find the past.