Scenic Bisbee is, among other things, a welcoming arts community. Bisbee was founded as a copper, gold, and silver mining town in 1880, and named in honor of Judge DeWitt Bisbee, one of the financial backers of the adjacent Copper Queen Mine.
In 1929, the county seat was moved from Tombstone to Bisbee, where it remains.
From 1950 to 1960, the sharp population decline changed and the number of residents of Bisbee increased by nearly 160 percent when open-pit mining was undertaken and the city annexed nearby areas. The peak population was in 1960, at 9,914.
In the following decade, there was a decline in jobs and population, although not as severe as from 1930 to 1950. But, the economic volatility resulted in a crash in housing prices. Coupled with an attractive climate and picturesque scenery, Bisbee became a destination in the 1960s for artists and hippies of the counter culture.
Artist Stephen Hutchison and his wife Marcia purchased the Copper Queen Hotel, the town’s anchor business and architectural gem, from the Phelps-Dodge mining company in 1970. The company had tried to find a local buyer, offering the deed to any local resident for the sum of $1, but there were no takers. The property needed renovation for continued use.
Old Bisbee High School building
Hutchison purchased and renovated the hotel, as well as other buildings in the downtown area. One held the early 20th-century Brewery and Stock Exchange. Hutchison began to market Bisbee as a destination of the “authentic,” old Southwest. His work attracted the developer Ed Smart.
Among the many guests at the hotel have been celebrities from nearby California. Actor John Wayne was a frequent visitor to Bisbee and the Copper Queen. He befriended Hutchison and eventually partnered with Smart in his real estate ventures. This period of Bisbee’s history is well documented in contemporary articles in The New Yorker and in an article by Cynthia Buchanan in The Cornell Review. It was at this time that Bisbee became a haven for artists and hippies fleeing the larger cities of Arizona and California. Later it attracted people priced out by gentrification of places such as Aspen, Colorado.
In the 1990s, additional people have been attracted to Bisbee, leading it to develop such amenities as coffee shops and live theater. Many of the old houses have been renovated, and property values in Bisbee now greatly exceed those of other southeastern Arizona cities.
Today, the historic city of Bisbee is known as “Old Bisbee” and is home to a thriving downtown cultural scene. This area is noted for its architecture, including Victorian-style houses and an elegant Art Deco county courthouse. Because its plan was laid out to a pedestrian scale before the automobile, Old Bisbee is compact and walkable. The town’s hilly terrain is exemplified by the old four-story high school; each floor has a ground-level entrance.
Panorama of Bisbee in 2009
In the May–June 2000 issue of Modern Maturity, the AARP highlighted what they called the most “alive” places to retire in the U.S. Bisbee was a runner-up as one of the “quirkiest” towns in America.
The city of Bisbee now includes the satellite communities of Warren, Lowell, and San Jose. The Lowell and Warren townsites were consolidated into Bisbee proper during the early part of the twentieth century. There are also smaller neighborhoods interspersed between these larger boroughs, including Galena, Bakerville, Tintown, South Bisbee, Briggs, and Saginaw.
Warren was Arizona’s first planned community. It was designed as a bedroom community for the more affluent citizens of the mining district. Warren has a fine collection of Arts and Crafts style bungalow houses. Many have been recognized as historic places, and the city has an annual home tour during which a varying selection are offered for tours. Since the end of mining in the 1970s, Warren has seen a steady decline in its standard of living. The residential district still houses a significant portion of the population, and includes City Hall, Greenway Elementary School, Bisbee High School, and the historic Warren Ballpark.
Lowell was at one time a sizable mining town located just to the southeast of Old Bisbee. The majority of the original townsite was consumed by the excavation of the Lavender Pit mine during the 1950s. All that is left today is a small portion of Erie Street, along with Evergreen Cemetery, Saginaw subdivision, and Lowell Middle School. These days Lowell is considered by most of the local residents to be more of a place name than an operating community.
San Jose, on the southern side of the Mule Mountains, is the most modern of the city’s subdivisions. As it is not restricted by mountains, it has had the most new growth since the late 1990s. Named after a nearby Mexican mountain peak, it is the location of many newer county government buildings, the Huachuca Terrace Elementary School, and a large shopping center.
Resurgence of mining industry
In 2007, in what has been noted as the world’s biggest-ever mining takeover, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold bought Phelps Dodge Mining. It began preliminary mining work in the area. Full mine operations began in 2013 with the mining of gold in addition to copper. Free-Port has invested in Bisbee by remediating soil contaminated in previous mining operations, donations to the school system, and other civic activities.
The Bisbee 1000 Stair Climb is a five-kilometer run through the city that traverses 1,034 stairs. Billed as “the most unique physical fitness challenge in the USA!” by the organizers, the Climb includes runners being serenaded by musicians at various locations among the stairs. The event has grown to include the Ice Man Competition, designed to honor the history of men delivering blocks of ice by hand before the advent of refrigeration. In the Ice Man Competition, entrants race up 155 steps carrying a ten-pound block of ice with antique ice tongs.
Bisbee also hosts an annual Blues festival during September. The festival effectively lengthens the tourist season, and provides a large amount of business to local bars and breweries.
Best Historic Small Town
In 2016, Bisbee earned the title of Best Historic Small Town in both Sunset magazine and a USA Today online reader poll. Jen Luria, director of tourism in Bisbee, credited the power of social media and comedian Doug Stanhope in the USA Today win. July 3, 2016, was declared “Killer Termites Day” after Doug Stanhope’s tenacious social media followers, The Killer Termites, persistently voted for Bisbee in the online poll.