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A Brief History of Old Bisbee


Bisbee is situated 100 miles southeast of Tucson in the Mule Mountains (elevation 5,300 ft.) off AZ Hwy 80, about 10 miles north of the Mexican border. 

The town got its start as a mining camp after Army scouts, prospecting in the area, found a large deposit of copper in 1877. Copper was only one of around 300 different minerals, many in bright hues, that have been identified here. Other minerals extracted from the hills around town include gold, silver, malachite, turquoise, and azurite, many found in abundance. The town was known as the Queen of the Mining Camps at the end of the last century. Mines included both underground chambers and giant surface pits. Numerous mines and wildcat diggings dotted the hillsides, and changed the face of the town and its outlying districts permanently.

The Copper Queen Mine, owned by Phelps Dodge Company, was the largest mining concern in town.

In 1892 the Phelps Dodge Company built a railroad into Bisbee and began its operations. Under the guidance of Copper Queen President James Douglas, the parent corporation had initiated a number of programs for Bisbee miners. Libraries, hospitals, a YMCA (now the Gym Club Suites) and YWCA were established. Phelps Dodge continued to mine copper in Bisbee until the 1970's. The giant Lavender Pit (Photos) closed in 1974, and underground mining ended the following year. The district had provided more than eight billion pounds of copper from 40 mines. A huge amount of ore still lies underground. Today visitors can take a mine car ride underground on the Queen Mine Tour and hear first-hand from retired miner guides about mining history, both past and recent past.


Bisbee's mineral wealth turned the town into a flamboyant boomtown, the biggest city between St. Louis and San Francisco.

At the turn of the century, Bisbee boasted 24,000 inhabitants. The saloons, gambling establishments and whorehouses (cribs), were jammed into Brewery Gulch, a side canyon boasting more than 50 saloons in the 1900s. The town's notorious reputation attracted an array of visitors from all over. Immigrants of 30 different nationalities once worked in the mines. Descendants of these original inhabitants are still living in Bisbee.

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Many Bisbee houses date from the heyday period of the mines from 1890 to 1920.

In Old Bisbee buildings are crowded onto the hillsides, many only approachable via antique staircases. The architectural "style" ranges from historical jewels to tiny miner's shacks. Some of the well-preserved commercial buildings now house museums. What was once the Phelps Dodge General Office Building is now the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum, the Smithsonian Institution's first rural affiliate. The Bisbee Restoration Museum is located in the "Fair Store" building, another example of turn-of-the-century architecture on Main Street, which was utilized as a department store until 1944. The Muheim House Museum, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a restored pioneer home with period furnishings that evoke the lifestyle of one of Bisbee's prominent families.

Many people left Bisbee after the mines closed.

Today the population is about 6,000. Those who remained restored and retained the town's natural beauty and historic value. The town has evolved into an artist and retirement community that features numerous events including concerts, fine art auctions, art & craft shows, historic home tours, a wine tasting festival, a farmer's market, the Brewery Gulch Daze, the Bisbee Blues Festival, and the Bisbee 1,000 Stairclimb, to name a few. With the "best year-round climate in the state", and many sights and activities to enchant all ages, anytime is a great time to visit historic Old Bisbee!


You'll become enamored with Bisbee's preserved architecture making you feel as if you've traveled back in time. In fact, Bisbee might be able to claim that it has the highest concentration of architectural styles per square inch in all of Arizona.

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