Bisbee

At a mile above sea level and stacked along the steep canyons of the Mule Mountains, Bisbee belies the fact that it’s in extreme southern Arizona. Its summers are 10 degrees cooler than Tucson and 15 below Phoenix, but in the winter, the cooler air rolls off into the valley below and the infrequent snow seldom outlasts the day — at least on the sunny side of the canyon.

Bisbee exists because of copper, pure and simple. There would be no other reason for developing a community in a hostile environment so far from everywhere. Yet copper was enough. The city flourished and its people prospered. There were times in its early years, say until the 1920s, when Bisbee was nothing short of the richest and most powerful community in the state, a far cry from its present penury and near obscurity.

It is named for a San Francisco investor, DeWitt Bisbee, a partner of early developers who, or so the story goes, never even visited the town. The local mining district is named for George Warren, a colorful prospector about whom not much truth is known, except that he grew up in poverty and died in poverty, holding in his hands along the way part title to one of the richest ore bodies the world has ever known, a potential fortune he lost, while drunk, gambling that he could outrun a horse.

Bisbee had wealth. It had color. It had life. Though it has lost most of those, it still has history, in doses that few other towns can match. Its heritage can be estimated from the sturdy buildings that line Main Street and from numerous rock dumps around the town that hint at the past and, perhaps, the future.

The story of Bisbee is the story of thousands of men and women, all struggling to make better lives for themselves and for their children. Many were the first generation born in America. It is the story of capital and labor, of geology and brawn, of talent and luck — lots and lots of blind luck.

It is the story of corporations, because copper could not be produced by the lone prospector. It was capital- and labor-intensive. As American industry grew in the late 19th century, so did its hunger for copper. As demand grew, technology improved, allowing the Bisbee mines to produce more and more metal, and to produce it in a safer environment.

This was written as an introduction to “A Brief History of Bisbee,” which has been published as a pamplet and as as audio book and is likely to have a new life before long.

If you want facts and figures, visit “Bisbee” on Wikipedia.