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  • Writer's pictureInger and Jeff Latreille

Queen of the Mines

~Monday, February 21, 2022~

Day 617

A gorgeous Tucson day and perfect temps of which we wouldn’t be enjoying, since we were off to the free-spirited town of Bisbee. At 5,800 feet in elevation, and 10 miles north of the Mexican border, Bisbee has a culture all its own and is home to many colorful characters as well. But in its heyday, it was the “Queen of the Copper Mines”, producing about 25% of the world’s copper and was once the largest city (peak population was 25,000) between San Francisco and St. Louis. This was no boom or bust town. More on that in a minute.

We should know by now, that if you want to participate in anything worthwhile in a popular town, you must book ahead online, especially on a holiday. After our 2-hour drive from Tucson, we were excited to check out the #1 tourist spot in Bisbee……the Queen Mine Tour, but to no avail. There were zero tour tickets left and the waiting list didn’t look good either, putting us at #8. We’ve seen mine tours before so we didn’t feel complete and utter disappointment. The lobby and gift shop would have to suffice with its endless array of copper, silver and gold jewelry, gemstones, t-shirts and other tourist trinkets. At least we got to see a few photographs and detailed maps and statistics about the mine. We may not have done the tour, but we still learned a lot. Even though we didn’t get to experience going 1,500 feet deep into THIS mine, I can at least give you a little description of what could have been……donning a hard hat, a miner’s headlamp and close-toe-shoes, you’re given details of the techniques, dangers and the drama of mining life. Here are just a few stats about the production and what was harvested from the mine from their inception in 1879 to their demise in 1975:

8,032,252,000 lbs. of copper

2,871,786 oz. of gold

77,162,986 oz. of silver

304,627,600 lbs. of lead

371,945,900 lbs. of zinc

In nearly a hundred years of continuous production, due to increased demand, especially with the advent of electricity (copper is a highly conductive metal) they produced metals valued at a staggering $6.1 billion (1975 prices). Unlike copper, there was little to no processing when mining gold and silver. Copper, on the other hand, required a whole lot of processing and thus a lot of investment before it was even worth anything; mine the ore, crush it, then subject it to high heat to separate the copper, in simplistic terms. From what we read, for every ton of ore harvested, 6 lbs. of that would be copper. From the time of the discovery of rich surface deposits, Bisbee’s mountains yielded more than 8 billion pounds of copper, representing one of the most productive mining districts in the world. And with it brought in hundreds of immigrants, establishing quite a melting pot of ethnicity. Decades later, when surface mining became the new thing, the ratio dropped to a ½ lb. of copper per ton of ore. But the techniques and machinery being used made copper production more efficient and profitable. Fascinating stuff.

For those unable to do the tour, the docent recommended the Lavender Open Pit Mine just a few minutes from the town of Bisbee. The Lavender Pit was named after Harrison Lavender, Phelps Dodge V.P. who passed away in 1952. Phelps Dodge was an American mining company founded in 1834, acquiring mines and mining companies. Lavender had a key role in executing plans for surface mining to recover previously unprofitable low-grade ore. There is an overlook off Arizona 80 where you can get a panoramic view from the top of the pit with glimpses of the geologic strata.

Once we found a parking spot in town, we noticed that many of the historic buildings seemed well-preserved with their Old West charm. Many of them were closed due to the holiday, but not the one I especially took notice of…….the Tumbleweed Mining Company. Inside, I found the most unique jewelry, not from copper or gemstones, but from tumbleweed. Owner, Walter Husbands was working the counter that day, and what I thought would be a 5-minute store visit, turned into 20-minutes of trying to decide which piece of jewelry I wanted, i.e. bracelet, necklace, earrings. It was fascinating hearing Walter talk all about how he and his wife, Doris, stumbled on tumbles and tenaciously stuck with it until they created their first “fossilized” brick of tumbleweed. He even created

it on an animal skull. As their promo card describes:

“Mature tumbleweeds are gathered from the Arizona deserts, cleaned an dethorned. Starting with a brew of re-purposed tumbleweeds, natural plant-based dyes, proprietary binders made from natural and wood resins, and thirty days of heat and compression, a “fossilized” brick of Tumblestone is created. From the first cut to the final finish, each hand-crafted tumbleweed gem is unique in size, shape, grain and color.”

Now most of you know I am not a big jewelry person. But when I find something one-of-a-kind, I snag it.

The bracelet itself is nickel-free (bonus, since I am allergic to nickel) and the tumbleweed stone is sensitive to moisture and extreme heat, so I will have to be careful I don’t leave it near the bathroom.

With my new purchase in hand, we walked over to the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum (a Smithsonian affiliate), to learn more about Bisbee’s copper-mining past. The self-guided tour was several levels of rich artifacts, photographs and displays. In fact the entire 2nd floor’s artifacts were donated by the Smithsonian (the latter photos of the mine workers and gems were taken on the 2nd floor).

This was a very worthwhile stop. Being that the museum just reopened their doors the week before, we were quite lucky to have seen this today, especially since we weren’t able to do the mine tour.

Starved, we went into several saloons and even the Bisbee Grand Hotel in search of a bite, but nothing struck our fancy; that is until Jeff spotted a brewery around the corner called the Old Bisbee Brewing Company.

My Classic Pilsner was the best I’ve tasted in a long time and Jeff gave 2 thumbs up for his Double Hopped IPA. There was even free popcorn! With the sun setting behind the surrounding hills, the outdoor patio was getting a bit chilly. So thank you nice waitress for lighting those outdoor heat lamps for us! 😊

Since popcorn wasn’t quite cutting it, we headed into downtown Tucson to get a few burritos at the oldest Mexican restaurant in the U.S…….El Charro Cafe, but as we pulled up and saw a line around the corner, we knew it wasn’t going to happen, at least tonight. The wait-2 hours!! Since we had Mexican food on the brain, we had to satisfy our craving by making our own version at home…..a great way to use leftovers!

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