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To stroll through Bisbee, Arizona today, a small town that seems to have forgotten about keeping up with the Joneses, it’s hard to tell that at one time it was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. Tucked in the Mule Mountains, the houses terrace the mountainside like a seaside town in Amalfi. Staircases scaling five hundred feet or more parallel the shacks and homes of varying size and repair stacked vertically behind and on top of each other. Gardens are untended, fences constructed of scrap metal, and some houses long ago needed a fresh coat of paint, while yet others are painted in a multitude of vibrant colors. Near the edge of town, a steep climb up one set of steps provides a rewarding view of the intersection of the Iron Man miner statue far below, the streets convening at his feet. Together with the church rising above on the opposite hill, it paints a scene so picturesque that it reveals not only the history of a bygone era when the West was settled, but resembles the old European villages that some of our ancestors left behind.

Bisbee was discovered by a government scout, Jack Dunn, who found the rich ore deposits while chasing Apaches. In my research, I found this great story from Desert USA:

Dunn and a couple of partners grubstaked a prospector, George Warren, to explore the area and file claims on their behalf. Warren, however, spent a good share of his time drinking, and what few claims he did file were not in Dunn’s name, but in his own.

During a drunken spree two years later, Warren bet one of his claims that he could outrun a man on horseback in a two-hundred yard dash. He lost the race, and he forfeited his claim to what turned out to be one of the richest copper mines in the West.

Well, there’s one mistake I haven’t made in my life.

Twenty miles south of Tombstone, Bisbee, became the county seat after Tombstone’s decline in the late 1800s. Bisbee proved to be even richer in minerals than Tombstone, reaping three million ounces of gold, more than eight billion pounds of copper, besides deposits of silver, lead and zinc. By the early 1900s, Bisbee had a population of 20,000 people. It had a mix of rich culture, but also a bawdiness akin to it’s northern neighbor Tombstone. The Brewery Gulch district, for example, was notorious for its 47 saloons and was known as the “liveliest spot between El Paso and San Francisco.”

Again like Tombstone, if you can imagine how a fire might start in an area of dry brush and unrelenting sun, Bisbee suffered from a ravaging fire early in its history. In 1908 most of Bisbee’s commercial district was burned to a pile of ashes. The town was rebuilt two years later and has been largely preserved from the original 1910 construction.

As mining operations ended in the 70s, Bisbee evolved over the decades since into the “hippie” town it is today. The main street is lined with art galleries, coffee houses, and antique shops. We missed the other attractions: mining tours and a historical museum, but we did see the oldest looking woman under seventy. She sat beside us in a coffee shop and we heard her say, “I love sitting in the sun.” When I returned back to the hotel, I had an uncontrollable urge to use the remaining half of my tube of sunscreen. It took an hour to rub it all in, but it felt like time well-spent.

Over and over again, the West reminds us of the strength of our nation’s settlers and their pioneering spirit, their resolute, indefatigable determination to carve a home out of the landscape, no matter how lush and inviting, or how harsh, arid and remote, rocky, desert, mountainous, or fertile, they would not be discouraged from making a life where their hearts led them.

Bisbee’s charm reminded me of my favorite North Carolina town, Asheville, eclectic and full of artists, where there are no expectations to become or pretend to be anyone but who your soul requests of you.

My pictures of this excursion here.
Bisbee Arizona

June 2008