My friend Suzanne told me that if she were hiding out from the law, she might think about moving to Bisbee. I can see what she meant, having recently returned from a two-day trip there with Jim and our friends Mel and Lynn. Ninety miles southeast of Tucson, Bisbee is an old copper mining town that tumbles down the sides of two canyons in the Mule Mountains. It’s just eleven miles from Naco, across the border in Mexico: one of the main streets of downtown Bisbee is Naco Road (although, like Nogales, there are two Nacos, one in Arizona and one in Sonora).
We had barely parked the car upon arriving when we noticed four men walking down one of Bisbee’s many narrow side streets; three of them were wearing orange jumpsuits with the faded letters “A.D.C.” on the back. They were not wearing leg chains or handcuffs, and in fact they walked as if, like us, they were simply strolling through town to take in the sights. But during our stay we saw many men in orange jumpsuits performing tasks that might otherwise have been assigned to municipal sanitation workers or county road crews. They were even opening doors for tourists at the old Queen Mine visitors’ center. There’s a state prison in nearby Douglas.
Since Bisbee is probably short on revenue other than what it brings in from tourism, cheap labor is a good deal, as it was for the copper and silver mining companies back in the day. When the I.W.W. wooed Bisbee’s miners in 1917, the sheriff and an army of vigilantes rounded up known union sympathizers, herding them first into a ballpark and then into boxcars, in which over 1,000 of them were shipped off to Columbus, New Mexico. Columbus was not much of a destination; it had been attacked and burned the previous year by Pancho Villa. The upstart miners and everyone else who’d had the misfortune to be mistaken for one of them were warned never to return.
In Bisbee they call it the “Deportation.”
Maybe it was the men in orange jumpsuits, or Bisbee’s claustrophobic placement in two narrow canyons, or maybe it was the fact that it began raining shortly after we got there; but altogether Bisbee had something of the sinister about it, in an antiquated sort of way. The town was like an elderly aunt who seems harmless at first sight but about whose dark past you have vague intimations: it’s in her eyes or maybe it’s those big, vintage onyx rings on her arthritic fingers.
Founded in 1880, Bisbee grew to be the biggest city between St. Louis and San Francisco in the early 1900’s, with a population of 20,000. It is now home to around 5600. The miners are mostly gone except for some old-timers: high grade copper ore, which was first mined underground and later in a large, orangey open pit, ran out in the mid-1970’s, and the mines were closed. In the meantime, though, as we learned at our obligatory tour of the old Queen Mine, 3 billion pounds of copper had been extracted, along with millions of ounces of gold, zinc and lead. In fact, Bisbee sits on one of the richest mineral deposits in the world.
Entrance to the Queen Mine. In the foreground, intrepid tourists
A fire burned much of the commercial district to the ground in 1908, but almost all the buildings in today’s small downtown date from the early teens of the last century, lending Bisbee its old Western town charm. But also its ghostliness; the fact that Bisbee is surrounded by actual ghost towns might also have something to do with that. And the Copper Queen, Arizona’s oldest continuously-run hotel (it opened in 1902), has billed itself for years as a place where guests should not be surprised by a brush with the para-normal. This sells, apparently, because a nearby boutique hotel, Canyon Rose Suites, also lists occasional visitors from the spirit world as one of its amenities. Meanwhile, outside on the cracked sidewalks and steep alleyways there are always a few people, but not many. In short, Bisbee has an embalmed air.
The Copper Queen Hotel
Or it would have, were it not for graffiti, somewhat painterly but including the F-word in large black letters, on a sheet metal wall blocking off an overgrown open space between two buildings. Or the chain-smoking, hard-bitten artist who lounges outside her gallery of collages and metal sculptures on Naco Road. Or the tiny, brick-walled Cornucopia Café on Main Street, which serves vegan soups and the best egg salad sandwich ever. Or the Shady Dell, where you can stay in lovingly restored and determinedly campy vintage trailers. Leaving town on Tombstone Drive you pass a gas station-turned-pizzeria called the Screaming Banshee. It just seems fitting.
Sometime back in the 1970’s, hippies and artists from California and elsewhere in Arizona discovered Bisbee and its rock-bottom housing market. In the 90’s there was another influx of folks looking for affordable vintage housing in a mountain setting. People opened restaurants, coffee shops, antique stores and art galleries. There’s a bicycle shop and a micro-brewery. This demographic shift of miners to bohemians revived Bisbee’s economy just enough to keep it scraping by on a vaporous diet of regional history and B-level tourist curiosity.
Part of downtown Bisbee
Bisbee has a lot of small, quirky hotels
Bisbee’s houses spill down the hillsides
We had booked rooms in a bed and breakfast just above town on Tombstone Canyon road. It might also have had ghosts, but perhaps the owners didn’t want to capitalize on ghostly children: the B&B was an elementary school from 1918 until the early 30’s. Each of its high-ceilinged rooms and suites, off long hallways, are school-themed. We were in the Arithmetic suite, and our friends Lynn and Mel were in the Library suite.
What is it that brings out the nostalgic in bed and breakfast owners? Or what aesthetic impulses are at work in certain people such that they feel called to open bed and breakfasts? There seems to be some symbiotic relationship between quilted hearts and muffins served to a handful of guests every morning at seven. To be sure, you don’t find many Mid-Century Modern B&Bs. The bed and breakfast is so entwined with Victoriana that nostalgia is a given. In the case of our B&B, that nostalgia took the inevitable turn to excess: teddy bears and dolls, a tiny wood-and-metal school desk in our sitting room, lace doilies, old textbooks, tiny porcelain rabbits in a schoolroom setting, and, somewhat incongruously, faded reproductions of French Impressionist paintings in faux-gilt frames. Down in the dining room, with its outdated television, VCR tapes and afghan-draped sofas, the round dining tables were set with placemats of indeterminate color on tablecloths shiny from years of laundering. But the sheer profusion of schoolhouse memorabilia distracted from the dining area’s threadbare aspect.
A detail of the Arithmetic Suite.
A tender, possibly Edwardian, moment on our dresser at the B&B
Presiding over this treasure-trove of mannequins and country-style fabric was our jovial host, a man of perhaps sixty, eager to tell us about the B&B’s past incarnations and full of little jokes. B&B hosts are almost always couples, but I was never quite sure who made up the school house’s distaff side, unless it was the Mexican-American woman who made fresh salsa for the breakfast tables. The salsa was good, and the coffee was strong.
Our night was quiet and undisturbed by mysterious sobbing or soft rustling. No sounds of children playing in the schoolyard at midnight or unexplained bells in the hallway. Although Lynn was rather startled by a large Raggedy Ann doll staring up at her when she opened their door in the morning. The doll had not gone so far as to position itself on Lynn and Mel’s threshold; it was merely part of a pyramid of inanimate figures heaped on a love seat just outside the Library suite.
We visited Bisbee’s History and Mining Museum, a very well-done little museum affiliated with the Smithsonian, and we straddled the tiny train — more like an engine-driven line of hotel luggage carts — into the depths of the old Queen Mine. We had drinks at the Copper Queen’s bar, where the young woman tending bar that night made a great Manhattan. In general, despite the limited dining possibilities in Bisbee, we had to agree we’d tasted some superlatives: the cocktails, the egg salad, the pizzas at Screaming Banshee. But at the end of a day and a half, Jim and Mel agreed they had “done” Bisbee and didn’t need to come back.
Lynn and I disagreed. Not for nothing did AARP’s magazine dub Bisbee one of America’s “quirkiest towns.” And quirky runs deep. You can’t plumb its depths in just a day and a half.
A couple of weeks later during a Lenten retreat in Tucson I happened to hear a homily given by the current rector of tiny St. John’s Episcopal in Bisbee. We’d visited St. John’s, a white frame church built in 1904, like much of Bisbee, by Phelps Dodge, the company that owned most of the mines. A friendly woman working in the adjoining garden had let us into the church on a weekday morning. St. John’s rector is Mexican-American, a different face from the succession of severe white men in white collars who look out from black-and-white portraits in St. John’s vestibule. He based his homily on a book by a friend of his titled “The Future Is Mestizo!”, which was appropriate given that the retreat was devoted to the theme of “migration spirituality.” The rector was both humorous and dynamic. He also serves the parish in Douglas, home of the state prison.
St. John’s Episcopal in Bisbee
Who makes up his community, I wondered. What new spirit life, if any, is housed in St. John’s yesteryear walls? For that matter, what about the gracious, willowy woman who served my egg salad sandwich at the café? Or the pizzeria owners? Who lives in Bisbee? What drew them there or what circumstances or off-kilter affection make them stay? To Lynn and me, Bisbee was a town suspended between dying and an underground energy. It was a place we still needed to mine.