• Ken Perrotte

Queen Mine Tour a Highlight of Visit to Eclectic Bisbee - Experience the Inside of a Mountain

Updated: Jul 12



The Lavender Pit

Just outside of Bisbee, Arizona, as you head south on Highway 80 toward Mexico just 11 miles away, is a massive, deep hole in the earth -- an open pit copper mine, heavily terraced as you gaze into its depths. The scope is incredible, inspiring thoughts of what this area must have looked and sounded like in the mine’s heyday.


A late spring trip to Arizona for a graduation in Tucson, about 90 miles away, offered travel opportunities. The copper mine tour was reputed to be one of the most popular activities during a visit to Bisbee, along with bar hopping, music listening, visiting museums and galleries, or touring any of the many period hotels and properties in this quirky town where eclectic cowboy meets hippie meets history.


Mine tours are popular in many destinations where the activity was practiced. I recall visiting an old gold mine in Colorado, descending deep into the earth for a miner’s perspective of the world below. I signed up for a tour of the Bisbee “Queen Mine.”

Seeing the vast, extremely deep open pit had me rethinking my plans. I don’t like heights and had visions of being on some tour where you’re navigating some terrace ledge with the mine’s bottom 1,000 feet below. No thanks. When I showed up early for my scheduled tour, I asked one of the guys behind the counter about the actual tour and whether any precipices and the like were involved.


“Not at all,” said John Balas, an affable man who then proceeded to outline the tour scenario – basically about an hour underground, visiting some mine tunnels and work areas. “People who are claustrophobic sometimes have problems,” Balas shared. “We always stop the carts close to the entryway when first heading in. This lets anyone who might be feeling that they can’t handle it get off and return to the outside."

Images at right courtesy of Discover Bisbee

Mine tours are popular in many destinations where the activity was practiced. I recall visiting an old gold mine in Colorado, descending deep into the earth for a miner’s perspective of the world below. I signed up for a tour of the Bisbee “Queen Mine.”


Our tour group gathered and went through a processing line, getting a safety vest, a hard plastic helmet and a light and battery pack. Many on the tour were members of the Iron Brotherhood motorcycle club that was staging a national gathering in Tombstone, Arizona. When it came time to board the carts that would carry us on small rail tracks into the mine, I was happy to see Balas was our guide.

He opened the foreboding door to the mine entrance, gave the bell a clang and towed us into the mine. The tunnel was tight in many places with rocks and support timbers just a foot or so away on each side and overhead. About 100 yards in, he stopped, letting the group sit in the darkness. If any claustrophobes were having second thoughts, they didn’t voice them. We motored on, eventually traveling 1,500 feet into the mountain.


Small lights punctuated the trip, including one distant light Balas jokingly referred to as “the light at the end of the tunnel."


Once inside the mine, there are two places where you disembark and head out on foot, visiting areas with displays showing how the “muck,” the ore-rich rock being excavated was extracted and removed, first using strictly human power – young men called “swampers,” then mules and finally machine-powered propulsion. The is also an exhibit showing how geologists prospected the tunnels looking for ore-rich veins, followed by dynamite charges set to achieve the perfect blast and rubble pile for exaction.

Various tools of the industry are displayed with Balas giving detailed explanation of workings and purpose of each. Drills, hoppers, carts and even a rolling two-seater toilet - Balas termed the contraption a little "over-engineered" - are on the tour. In one large, cavern-like room, Balas shown his light on an area of rock and the form of a disembodied head appeared. Balas said this was "Headless John," the "spirit of the mine" and a guardian angel of sorts to the miners. Some tours are given by former miners, but Balas notes many of the miners who worked in the mine, which closed permanently in 1975, are now elderly. Balas is a retired history teacher and his tour is educational, detailed, and fun, punctuated with quips and personal asides. “There are a lot of good stories down there,” he said.

Anyone gotta go?

Included are how the mines were discovered (a U.S. Cavalry officer with a little knowledge of geology found the initial “interesting” rocks), the politics associated with the land, how the Industrial Revolution changed things along with electricity and communication innovations driving the need for copper. Balas tells how poor sanitation resulted in mass outbreaks of hookworms in the miners, which eventually resulted in the rolling outhouse. He shared how the power drills could fill the tight working areas with dust, causing deadly silicosis. Use of water at the drill impact point eventually solved that issue. He outlines how mining could be a good paying job back then, with many of the miners getting healthy commissions – sometimes thousands of dollars a month - based on the amount of rock brought out.

Back in the days when steak dinners could be had for about 16 cents and a loaf of bread cost a penny, a hardworking miner could make about 35 cents an hour, according to Balas. They were making about $50 a day in 1975 – righteous pay dude! I remember joining the Air Force just a couple years later and pulling down a base salary of $375 a month.

By the Numbers

The mine operated continuously for almost 100 years, employing 4,000 men a day at its zenith. Bisbee mines produced metals valued at $6.1 billion (1975 prices), said to be one of the largest production valuations of all the world’s mining districts in the world. This includes estimated production of 8 billion pounds of copper, 2.9 million ounces of gold, 77.2 million ounces of silver, nearly 305 million pounds of lead and 372 million pounds of zinc.


Open-pit mining began in 1917 to meet the copper demand during World War I. As ore reserves dwindled at the mine, the open pit mine closed in 1974, followed by the underground operations the next year. Bisbee’s mayor saw an opportunity to take the closed mine and turn a portion of it into a tourism opportunity and a chance to help preserve and share the area’s heritage. The Queen Mine Tour opened to visitors in February 1976. Since then, according to the tour website, more than a million visitors, from all 50 states and more than 30 foreign countries, have entered the mine


The Deportation

One topic not covered in the tour is the great labor strike and deportation 1917. Copper prices were rapidly increasing, but miner pay wasn’t. In May of that year, one of the miner’s unions presented a list of grievances and demands to the Phelps Dodge company, the mine’s owner. One miner’s union was reportedly affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World, the "Wobblies,” a radical group founded in Chicago in 1905 that eschewed capitalism and was credited with using violence and sabotage to achieve its goals. The demands were rejected, and 3,000 miners went on strike in late June.


The mine owners used the IWW connection to take unprecedented action against the striking miners, organizing a posse of more than 2,000 men led by the local sheriff to round up striking miners and suspected sympathizers on July 12. Nearly 2,000 men were arrested and marched by the heavily armed posse to a ballpark where they were given a chance to end the strike and denounce the IWW. Reportedly, some 700 did and were allowed to return to work. The rest were loaded onto railcars and taken to Hermanas, New Mexico, where they were unloaded and stranded, mostly penniless, with the clothes on their backs. Federal troops soon arrived to alleviate the situation. The act was investigated and deemed completely illegal. Phelps Dodge company executives were arrested the next year. None were convicted and none of the deportees returned to their homes or jobs.


Tour

The tour currently costs $14 for Adults and $6.50 for children age 6-12. Younger children are not allowed underground. Participants cannot wear open-toe shoes or high heels. Reservations are required for underground tours. For information, reservations, and group rates, call 866-432-2071 or 520-432-2071. You can also book online at www.queenminetours.com. The tours are offered year-round, except for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Five tours a day are usually offered. They fill quickly. It’s best to book well in advance if possible. The tour location, close to Bisbee’s downtown, has an ample gift shop. A documentary about the Bisbee mine airs in a small viewing area adjacent to the gift shop.

Brewery Gulch - Arizona Memory Project image

Also in Bisbee

By the early 1900s, Bisbee was a boom town, the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco, with more than 20,000 people. It had a mix of culture – with libraries and theaters – and more colorful, salacious attributes such as an ample offering of saloons (nearly 50) and brothels. Thankfully, many of these historic watering holes are still serving up the libations, as well as copious amounts of live music. As to the brothels, well, I can’t find anything in the current guidebooks there, but gambling and prostitution were outlawed by about 1910. The city has many vintage hotels, loads of rental cottages and B&Bs, some of which are high along the canyon hillsides and accessible only by steep, lengthy staircases. If you take the mine tour, try to also visit the Smithsonian-affiliated Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum.

Several events calendars are published relating to Bisbee activities today. The Bisbee Saturday Market featuring farm produce, crafts and more is held every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Vista Park in the Warren district. The Discover Bisbee website is a wonderful resource.

Images 1, 3, 5, 7, 8 clockwise from top left courtesy of Discover Bisbee