A Long Weekend in the Old West – Tombstone and Bisbee

For our 2 year anniversary, Jake and I decided to take a long weekend to explore a bit of the Old West. We’d heard a lot about the tourist towns of Tombstone and Bisbee, but we’d never had the opportunity to explore these cool historic Western towns. I’d actually never been south of Tucson! There is so much to see in Arizona, and it’s all so very unique.

A Night at the Farm

We left town after work on Friday and drove straight to our Airbnb near Tombstone. I’d searched for a unique place to stay, but pickings were slim in this area of remote desert. I stumbled upon a small farm that catered to travelers, and we rented a tiny little camper to sleep in for one night. It was relatively easy to find because of their great directions, but it really was in the middle of nowhere!

Tombstone Sign

In the morning we chatted with some other guests, a couple who hosts yearly road trips from Arizona all the way up to Alaska (?!) and the woman’s parents, visiting from Germany. We explored the farm a little, chatting with the owners and learning about all of the animals. There were goats, a horse, chickens, pigs, and ducks.

One of the goats was about to give birth, and she looked ready to pop!

Goat Eye

I was happy to be able to explain some farm things to Jake, because my uncle and aunt had a farm in Minnesota when I was growing up. I think every child (especially us lifelong urban children) should have the opportunity to visit a farm now and then, to remember that someone worked very hard to provide what we take for granted. Eggs don’t come from the back of the grocery store. Vegetables don’t just magically appear, washed and trimmed. Farming is hard work! This farm also had a solar generator and a wind turbine, making it totally off the grid.

We paid a little extra to have our host cook us a breakfast of farm-fresh eggs with homemade tortillas and salsa. It was delicious!

After we’d eaten our fill, we took a final walk around the farm, and then headed to Tombstone.

Tombstone – A Piece of the Old West

Tombstone Sign

Tombstone is an infamous Old Western town, mostly due to the OK Corral Gunfight. In the late 1800’s, the population grew from 100 to 14,000 in 7 years due to mining boom. Local mines produced up to $85 million in silver (exact totals unknown). I was surprised to learn that back in its heyday, Tombstone was a center of culture. The townspeople enjoyed traveling operas, plays, European wine, and other amenities, as it was a stop on the road between the East Coast and San Diego.

Today Tombstone is just a small tourist town. We were surprised to arrive just in time for  a parade, and it was fun to see all of the traditional (and wacky) costumes.

After the parade, we visited the OK Corral for the essential OK Corral Gunfight reenactment. Here’s a little background if you’re unfamiliar with the story:

“The Earp brothers—Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan—as well as Doc Holliday, arrived in December 1879 and mid-1880. The Earps had ongoing conflicts with Cowboys Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy Claiborne. The Cowboys repeatedly threatened the Earps over many months until the conflict escalated into a shootout on October 26, 1881. The historic gunfight is often portrayed as occurring at the O.K. Corral, though it actually occurred a short distance away in an empty lot on Fremont Street.”

The show was slightly cheesy, but quite thrilling at the end.

We wandered around town, visiting the historic storefronts, the Historama Theater (VERY cheesy), Big Nose Kate’s Saloon (where I learned that she lived for a time in Decorah, Iowa!), and some other Old West establishments.

Tombstone Big Nose Kate's Saloon

Tombstone is a great little town, especially if you love Old West history, but we covered pretty much everything we wanted to see in a day.

We spent the night in Sierra Vista, an odd little blip in the desert which wouldn’t exist today without its military base. Sierra Vista was the site of historic Camp Huachuca, established by the US Army in 1877 to secure the border with Mexico. It’s basically a suburb without an urban center – movie theaters, shopping malls, and hotels. We also found out that it was the location of the first drive-thru McDonald’s. How’s that for random?! We ended up here because lodging in Tombstone and Bisbee was quite expensive, and we didn’t mind driving a bit. Normally we’d just camp, but we could only find RV parks, which really are not ideal for tent camping.

Bisbee – Home of Miners and Hippies (And Johnny Depp)

Founded in 1880 as a mining town, hard-rock miners blasted, drilled, and mucked more than 2,000 miles of tunnels through the surrounding mountains. After the mining industry began to decline, Bisbee became a home for hippies and artists. Bisbee is known as one of the quirkiest towns in America, and we certainly got that vibe walking through. It’s quite walkable, although if you want a better look at the neighborhoods, you should be prepared to walk up a network of staircases places haphazardly throughout the town.

Since nothing was open upon our arrival, we drove a minute or so past town to take a look at the Lavender Pit Copper Mine. It was… pretty ugly. Open pit mining in Bisbee began in 1917 and continued until 1974. This pit is 5,000 feet long and 850 feet deep. It looks like they’ve just left it to degrade on its own, but what a scar this has left on this land…

Bisbee Lavender Pit Mine

Look at the building in the upper left for scale.

Over 300 types of minerals can be found in this area. The red is oxidized sulfide minerals, gray is pyrite, and the purple or “lavender” color is limestone, which is considered waste rock. The pit isn’t named for the color, but for a mining operations manager – Harrison Lavender.

Next on our itinerary was the Queen Creek Mine Tour. It was very informative, and I’d highly recommend it as long as you aren’t afraid of being in a small, dark tunnel for a few hours. This mine was in operation for nearly 100 years, closing in 1975 after producing metals worth $6.1 billion (1975 prices).

 Estimated production was 8,032,352,000 lbs of copper, 2,871,786 ounces of gold, 77,162,986 ounces of silver, 304,627,600 lbs of lead and 371,945,900 lbs of zinc! That’s a LOT of metal! A little history from the Queen Creek Mine Tour website:

“The story of Bisbee mining began in the late 1870’s when Lt. Dunn, in charge of a cavalry detail from the frontier Army post of Fort Huachuca, was on a scouting mission against the Apache Indians. Lt. Dunn and his men headed for a spring in the Mule Mountains to camp for the night. The party camped on a spot of fairly flat ground in the canyon below the spring—a site now occupied by Old Bisbee, only several hundred yards from the beginning of today’s Mine Tour.

On a walk after dinner, Lt. Dunn picked up an interesting rock. He found a few more pieces along the slope of the south wall of the canyon. Unable to do anything about it because of military duties, Dunn took a prospector by the name of George Warren into his confidence and struck up a deal by which Warren would locate claims and work the property with Dunn as a partner. But on his way to the site, prospector Warren stopped to visit some friends and enjoy his favorite pastime—whiskey drinking. He soon has new partners and they staked a new group of claims and left Dunn out of the deal. When Dunn came along later to check, he was on the outside looking in.”

Check out my awesome Curious George coat! You’re required to wear a headlamp and helmet, and either this coat or a reflective vest (In case you get lost? So you can’t scare people? I didn’t ask).

We sat on a small trolley on rails to get into the mine. It was slightly terrifying to be plunged into a small, dark, soundless tunnel, so they stopped in case anyone got too claustrophobic and needed to get out. There were some small children on our tour, and they all seemed to be just fine.

After rolling along for what seemed like an eternity, we were able to get off the trolley and walk into a connecting tunnel. Our guide was quite knowledgeable, as he was a retired miner and had actually worked in Bisbee mines in his younger years. We learned about the system of tunnels, how the men got to the ore (part drill, part dynamite), and how the elevator below was used with a system of rings, so the operator knew if people needed to be brought up at leisure, or at high speed in case of emergency. At the end is what the copper ore looks like in the bedrock.

As a child I read quite a few historical novels about miners and their families in the mining camps. I can’t even imagine going to work every day in this small, dark place. And the early miners only had 2 candles! I’m sure it improved with the addition of electricity, but still, that would’ve been hard and dangerous work.

An interesting story we read later was about the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. The mining companies in Bisbee were historically very anti-union. At 6:30am on July 12, 1917, the trouble began.

“The vigilantes rounded up over 1,000 men, many of whom were not strikers — or even miners — and marched them two miles to the Warren Ballpark. There they were surrounded by armed Loyalty Leaguers and urged to quit the strike. Anyone willing to put on a white armband was released. At 11:00 a. m. a train arrived, and 1,186 men were loaded aboard boxcars inches deep in manure. Also boarding were 186 armed guards; a machine gun was mounted on the top of the train. The train traveled from Bisbee to Columbus, New Mexico, where it was turned back because there were no accommodations for so many men. On its return trip the train stopped at Hermanas, New Mexico, where the men were abandoned. A later train brought water and food rations, but the men were left without shelter until July 14th when U. S. troops arrived. The troops escorted the men to facilities in Columbus. Many were detained for several months.

Meanwhile, Bisbee authorities mounted guards on all roads into town to insure that no deportees returned and to prevent new “troublemakers” from entering. A kangaroo court was also established to try other people deemed disloyal to mining interests. These people also faced deportation.

Several months after the deportation, President Woodrow Wilson set up the Federal Mediation Commission to investigate the Bisbee Deportation. The Commission discovered that no federal law applied. It referred the issue to the State of Arizona while recommending that such events be made criminal by federal statute. They did hold that the copper companies were at fault in the deportation, not the I.W.W.

The State of Arizona took no action against the copper companies. Approximately 300 deportees brought civil suits against the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad and the copper companies. None of these suits came to trial because of out-of-court settlements. Suits were also filed in state court against 224 vigilantes. Sadly, the only suit brought to trial ended in a “not guilty” verdict. The rest of the cases were dismissed.”

– From the University of Arizona

What a crazy story in American history.

After exploring town, we began the Bisbee 1000! If you haven’t heard of this, it’s an annual race held in October. The race consists of nine staircases (1,000 stairs total) over 4.5 miles, connected by winding roads throughout the small town of Bisbee. I’d highly recommend printing out a map of the course if you’re going to visit, because it certainly takes you on a scenic tour! It was a quad-burner for sure. As you’re following the course, you look for signs like these to find the next staircase:

Bisbee 1000 Steps

Along the way you’ll see lots of historic homes and local art.

If you’re a sucker for punishment, you can add on 155 extra steps and do the Ironman Ice portion of the race. Participants do this section holding a large block of ice with metal tongs. I did not carry the sandbag up the stairs. I’m not that crazy!

After resting our legs and enjoying some refreshments at High Desert Market and Screaming Banshee Pizza, we explored more of the town until evening. We ‘d booked an Old Bisbee Ghost Tour, and were joined by a guide and 2 other couples. It was quite fascinating to learn about all of the reputed hauntings in town. One of the couples was actually staying in a haunted room in one of the hotels.

The most gory story was about a former boarding house, supposedly the most haunted building in Bisbee. A young man caught his wife in the boarding house with another man. He was so angry that he proceeded to shoot them, everyone else in the boarding house, and then himself – 22 people in all. Yikes! Another tale is of a ghost who appeared just in time to save 2 boys from a flash flood. Good to know they’re not all bad! Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, a ghost tour is always fun. Our guide was fun, and we also learned that she’d seen Johnny Depp a few days prior – he has a house somewhere in Bisbee! I think he’d fit right in.

On the way back to Phoenix, we bummed around Tucson a bit, but the museum we wanted to visit is closed on Mondays. Overall, it was quite a relaxing weekend, and we really enjoyed learning more about the history of Southern Arizona.

Next up – Alaskan Adventures!

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