I mentioned at the end of the Tombstone blog, that we had “discovered” the town of Bisbee while reading an article in the Arizona Republic Newspaper.
It is tucked away in the SE corner of Arizona, a mere 8 miles north of the USA-Mexico border, and the travel writer for the Republic described it as a “quirky, artsy town with historic lodging, fine dining, museums, art galleries, and antique shops”. Assuming that description was true, Bisbee sounded exactly like the sort of place we love to visit, so I went online to find out more about it.
Bisbee is located roughly 100 miles southeast of Tucson, and more importantly for us only 23 miles east of Tombstone, which was very much on our planned route into New Mexico (from Arizona). It sits at an elevation of 5,300 feet making it the southern-most “mile high” city in the United States.
Founded in 1880, following the discovery of rich copper deposits in Mule Gulch, the Bisbee mines produced more than eight billion pounds of copper during its lifetime, not to mention the silver, lead and zinc that also came from the ore-rich mountains. By the early 1900’s, Bisbee had become one of the most important mining cities in the world, and unlike many other Nevada and Arizona communities whose fortunes faded quickly, Bisbee flourished. In 1917, there were 22,800 full time residents making it the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco.
In 1908, a devastating fire ravaged most of the commercial district along Main Street, but the town was so wealthy, it was all rebuilt within 2 years.
The high-grade Sacramento Mine gave way to open-pit mining beginning in 1951, and the subsequently renamed Lavender Pit operation continued in operation until 1975. The remains of the open-pit operation are very visible from the highway as you head east out of Bisbee and we were flabbergasted at the size of it, as it covers more than 300 acres and is over 900 feet deep.
Once the mining operation shut down, most people associated with the industry left town and for a brief while in the mid-70’s, Bisbee fell into a state of disrepair. It wasn’t for long though, as local developers renovated the historic Copper Queen Hotel along with many other buildings and began to actively market Bisbee as a destination where travelers could find the authentic old southwest. One of those travelers was the actor, John Wayne, who was so taken by Bisbee, he ended up partnering with some of the local developers, and was instrumental in helping kick-start the tourism trade. Although you can’t see the sign too clearly in the picture on the left, this is the John Wayne room at the Cooper Queen Hotel.
As the miners left town, artists and “hippies” began moving in, and today, those two “factions” account for a significant proportion of the 5,500 people who call Bisbee home.
Although we didn’t take advantage of it, there is a highly regarded tourist attraction in Bisbee – a tour of the Queen Mine (see file photo on the left), where you are actually taken 1500 feet inside the mountain and down into the original mine. No cheap imitation this one. It’s the real deal, and from everything we read on Trip Advisor, as well all the positive feedback we heard from other visitors in town, it is well worth the $13 per person entrance fee.
We arrived in Bisbee around 5:30 on a Tuesday evening, and after parking the Jeep, we went to check out the two, fully renovated historic hotels that had been singled out in the newspaper article – the Bisbee Grand Hotel (right), and the aforementioned Copper Queen Hotel. First, we walked a short distance uphill to the Bisbee Grand (everything is either uphill or downhill, there are no flat streets in Bisbee). While it looked very nice, we could feel and hear a thumping base guitar and a raucous cheering crowd at the Hotel’s Grand Saloon, and we were interested in something just a little bit quieter.
We headed back downhill to check out the Copper Queen, which as you can see from the picture below is not particularly stunning-looking from the outside but it does have a storied history. It was built by the Phelps Dodge corporation (who owned and operated the mines), and took more than four years before construction was completed in 1902. Phelps Dodge wanted to lure potential investors into town and they spared no expense as far as interior decorating was concerned. The first thing guests saw when they walked in the door was a lobby finished with mosaic tiles imported from Italy. The lobby also had a cathedral ceiling fitted with Tiffany glass. An open-air hallway behind two large windows acted as air conditioning for the area, which included a front desk fabricated out of Tiger Oak.
As we looked into the availability of rooms, we noticed two Tiffany lamps over top of the front desk, and the manager told us they were originals dating back to 1902. There was also a huge safe built into the wall, and he told us it had been moved from the Copper Mine during the hotel’s construction as it had become too small to handle the company payroll.
The more we talked to the front desk staff we knew we had to stay for the night just to experience some of the character of the hotel, and we were in luck as there was a room available for us on the 4th floor. As the manager handed us our room keys, he said “now you know about our ghosts don’t you?”. Mary smiled and said “nooooooooo. Tell us!”
As the legend goes, there are three resident ghosts at the Copper Queen Hotel. The first, an older gentleman, is said to be tall with long hair and a beard, and is usually seen wearing a black cape and a top hat. Some claim they smell the aroma of a good cigar either before or after seeing him. He appears in the doorways or as a shadow in some of the rooms in the southeast corner of the fourth floor (near the Teddy Roosevelt room pictured right). Our room was on the fourth floor but down the hall from the Roosevelt room.
The second, and perhaps the most famous ghost, is a female in her early thirties by the name of Julia Lowell. The story goes that she was a lady of the evening on Brewery Gulch and used the rooms in the hotel for her clients. She supposedly fell madly in love with one of the gentleman callers and upon telling him, he no longer wanted anything to do with her. She then took her own life at the hotel. Her presence is felt on the west side of the building on the second and third floors. Some men have reported hearing a female voice whispering in their ear. Others claim that she appears in the shape of bright, white smoke. The hotel has paid tribute to her by naming a room (in the area she practised her profession) “The Julia Lowell Room”.
The third, and youngest ghost is a small boy, age eight or nine. It is said that he drowned in the San Pedro River. It’s believed that his spirit found its way to the hotel because a relative, perhaps a mother or father, was employed there at the time. He’s the most mischievous of the three. Guests on the west side and also on the second and third floor; have reported objects in their rooms moved from one table to another. A few have reported that they can hear his footsteps running through the halls and sometimes hear his delightful giggle. Others claim that when they run bath water, they feel his presence. He is never seen, just heard.
The hotel has been featured on a number of paranormal and ghost-related TV programs including Ghost Hunters which dedicated an episode to it in its third season.
At the front desk, there are nine journals full of hand-written experiences, by guests claiming to have encountered one of the ghosts. Even the manager claims to have had an encounter with the cigar smoker when he was alone in the elevator late one night – at least he thought he was alone (bwa ha ha ha ha). Iin 2010, the hotel published a book entitled “The Ghosts of the Copper Queen Hotel”. The back cover states “throughout its 100 year history the Copper Queen has had countless guests check in, but a few have never checked out”. In case you’re wondering, of course we bought a copy of the book.
Our fourth floor room was nothing special. There was a comfortable queen bed, and a few historically accurate pieces of furniture (mostly recreations). There was cable and a somewhat sketchy Internet connection, and as we settled into bed for the night we cracked a few jokes about potential visitors. As far as I know, we spent the night without any apparitions in bed beside us, although come to think of it, I am almost deaf in one ear. Perhaps I missed Julia’s whisper????
In the morning, I walked down the stairs from the fourth floor. The third floor contains a floor-length balcony with access for all guests. I stepped outside and inhaled the fresh morning air, which surprisingly was nowhere near as dry as the rest of Arizona had been (yay!). I took the photo looking left toward the “new” downtown Bisbee which from our brief drive-by didn’t have much of interest to us. Moving down to the second floor, I encountered a sitting room where guests can privately meet, away from the commotion of the main floor lobby. Almost all of the furnishings in the picture below are originals and they are in superb condition. I could very easily have sunk into one of the couches, cracked open the Steve Berry novel I was engrossed in, ordered a pot of tea, and allowed the morning to pass me by.
Heading down to the lobby where Mary was waiting for me (she’d taken the elevator down with our bags, and note here, the Copper Queen is the only hotel in Bisbee that has an elevator!), we met up with the same manager who had checked us in the night before. He proceeded to tell us more about the history of the hotel. At the time it was built, it was considered to be one of the most modern hotels in the United States. Over the past 100 years, there has had to be more than a few changes to accommodate the modern traveler. Initially, the first floor of the hotel was heated by a fireplace in the lobby. Now there is central heat and air conditioning.
Originally the hotel boasted 73 rooms with 1 bathroom on each floor. Today all rooms have their own private modern bath, but in order to make that happen, they had to lose 20 rooms. He then told us a little secret about the elevator. It was not an original “perk” for guests of the hotel, and was only added in the late 1940’s. In order to do that, the grand staircase had to be reconfigured. He walked around the lobby with us and told us the history behind each piece of furniture, as well as sharing more of the folklore of the Copper Queen. We were thoroughly entertained, and count our night there as one of our favorite experiences of the entire trip.
Before leaving town, we walked Main Street, and poked our noses into quite a few of the shops. There were items of interest to us in almost every store we ventured into, and we had to keep reminding ourselves that we don’t need more stuff – we’re supposed to be in downsizing mode. Many of the buildings that were part of the 1908-1910 reconstruction are still in use today.
One particular building that caught my eye was the Bisbee Royale, the local Movie Theatre (movies every Friday and Saturday night only and not just current releases). A local artist with the fabulous name of Carolyn Toronto, had just finished painting the wall with silhouettes from the Beatle’s Help Album, all done in anticipation of a May 2nd, 2014 grand re-opening.
Before we left home at the beginning of March, we had never even heard of Bisbee. A little more than a month later, we felt like we had discovered a hidden gem. The people were really friendly, and the food we ate for dinner at the Bisbee Table restaurant was outstanding, especially the bread-pudding we had for desert which they baked for us, while we ate our dinner. Oh ya, it was really, really good.
If you’re heading to Arizona for any type of vacation in the future, make sure to try and build a visit to Bisbee into your travel plans.