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Roger Weller, geology instructor
by David Bernheim
Copper Mining in Bisbee
From 1865 to 1900, expansion of the railroads across the continent meant the industries and production centers on the East Coast could now be connected to the natural resources of the West. At first, prospectors were looking for gold and silver. But as Thomas Edisonís invention of the electric light bulb and the need for power plants began in the 1870ís, the demand for copper increased. Advantages of the metal included that it was easy to bend, sturdy, and resisted oxidation. New uses for copper led to even more demand for the mineral. Developers were able to more easily and safely access the Arizona Territory once the Apache Wars ended and railroad lines were extended. Many mines were developed across the state, but Bisbee became the location known as the top producer of copper.
The first mining claim in the Bisbee area was filed in 1877. U.S. Army Lieutenant Tony Rucker, Army Scout Jack Dunn, and packer Ed Byrne from Ft. Bowie, discovered mineral deposits and staked a claim in August 1877. Nearly two hundred other claims were staked in the Mule Mountains over the next two years. In early 1880, with the backing of some Tucson merchants, Edward Reilly bought the Copper Queen and Copper King claims from their initial owners for the sum of fifteen thousand dollars. Unfortunately, he did not have the resources to develop his claims. The additional funds needed were eventually provided by Judge DeWitt Bisbee. Reilly was then able to employ Benjamin and Lewis Williams to provide the procedural skills needed to ensure the success of the mine. The Williams brothers began developing a mine on the Copper Queen claim, and built a small smelter to extract the copper from the raw ore. The mining camp was named after Judge Bisbee. By the end of 1880, the mine had produced more than 700 tons of copper. This comprised about 70% of all the copper produced from Arizona mines during that year, but a minor percentage of the total copper mined throughout the nation at that time.
During the second year of production Dr. James Douglas, a metallurgical engineer for Phelps, Dodge, & Company of New York, examined the Copper Queen mine, and subsequently bought the adjacent Atlanta claim. In 1884, Douglasís crew excavated a vein in the Atlanta that also ran into the Copper Queen mine. To avoid legal battles over this ore deposit, Phelps, Dodge, and Company bought a majority interest in the Copper Queen mine. The two were merged to form the Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Company. Dr. Douglas became the president of the new company, and the Williams brothers were put in charge of mining and smelting. (featured below)
Many mines take years to turn a profit, but the advancements of industry from 1865 to 1914 exceeded all expectations. Due to increased prices in the copper market, over the next few years the Phelps, Dodge, & Company was able to not only pay off all of its debts on the Copper Queen but to locate new veins of ore to extract. The yield of the company increased sufficiently to allow Phelps- Dodge to construct the Arizona & Southeastern Railroad line which linked the city of Bisbee with the town of Fairbanks. This decreased the companyís shipping costs to move the ore from the mines to the market.
By 1900 the Copper Queen mine was producing 18,500 tons of copper ore each year. This caused Bisbee to emerge as the fourth largest copper producing area in the nation within twenty years. The town of Bisbee grew until it was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco at its height, with a population of around 25,000. In 1916, the mines in Bisbee reached their highest level of production of 96,848 tons. The level would never exceed this point again. With the advent of World War I, copper was even more in demand. As the demand increased, the smelters were unable to keep up with the production from the mines. The companies began shipping ore to other locations for smelting.
In 1917, the United States entered the military operations of World War I. But by 1917, machines were replacing miners as companies shifted from underground mining to open pit mining. The Sacramento Pit was one of the first open pit mines to open in the United States. When the war ended, the high demand for copper also came to a close. With the lowered demand came lower prices for metals, and the mines reduced their production.
Another significant event that occurred in 1917 was the Bisbee Deportation. The Bisbee Miners Union had called a workers strike. But on July 12th 1,200 men under the direction of the County Sheriff rounded up all those who could not prove they were employees of the mines and shipped them to Columbus, New Mexico. The government maintained a camp for the deportees, and supplied them with food and water until September. Woodrow Wilson sent a federal mediation committee to Arizona to investigate. Although 20 of the men heading the deportation were charged with kidnapping, a jury found the one man tried ďnot guiltyĒ. The findings were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. This had the effect of breaking the strike and the unionís hold on Bisbee.
As mining in Bisbee headed into the post-war era, machines could mine lower grade ore more economically, and rapidly took the place of the skilled laborers needed for underground mining. Miners and other employees of the company moved on. The Lavender Pit, named for Harrison Lavender, general manager of Phelps Dodge, was opened in the 1950ís. This was the last open-pit mine developed in Bisbee. Though the mines remained viable until the 1970ís, Bisbee declined steadily as a mining town.
Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum.
Leaming, George F. The Story of Mining in Bisbee. 1998. Free Geos Library. USA. Print.
Schwantes, Carolos A., Ed. Bisbee Urban Outpost on the Frontier, 1992. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ. Print.