Liberal Bisbee a quirky destination in Arizona


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BISBEE, Ariz. -- A large painted sign on the side of a building on Main Street here declares: "The Bisbee District Has the Best Year Round Climate on Earth."

Depending upon whom you talk to, that may involve more the political climate than the weather.

This quirky liberal artist colony pinched into the Mule Mountains about two hours southeast of Tucson became the first city last summer in this conservative red state to allow civil unions between same-sex couples.

And earlier last year, Bisbee became one of the first towns in the state to open a medical marijuana dispensary.

If you go
Bisbee and Tombstone, Ariz.
Getting there: Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (two hours northwest of Tucson) provides the best and cheapest flights. US Airways and Southwest offer nonstop flights from Pittsburgh.
Bisbee
Bisbee Visitor Center: 1-866-2BISBEE (224-7233) www.discoverbisbee.com.
Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, No. 5 Copper Queen Plaza, Bisbee, Ariz. 85603, 1-520-432-7071; www.bisbeemuseum.org. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Admission: adults, $7.50; seniors (60+), $6.50; children under 16: $3.
Tombstone
Tombstone Chamber of Commerce: www.tombstonechamber.com.
Boothill Graveyard: www.boothillgraves.com.

Situated 30 minutes south of Tombstone, Bisbee is an easy day trip or weekend getaway from Tucson and has become a popular magnet for retirees.

So confirms a shopkeeper at the Hydra boutique that opened recently on Bisbee's Subway Street and specializes in avant-garde couture, vintage new wave, burlesque corsets and everything leather. ("This is the place to find all the things your mom wouldn't let you wear in high school," one review says).

The shopkeeper said three couples had dropped in over the past few weeks who had just moved to Bisbee to live out their days. None had connections to the region, but each had done extensive research to find the perfect spot in the country to retire -- and Bisbee was it.

As the southern most mile-high (5,300 feet above sea level) city in the U.S. and just eight miles from the Mexican border, Bisbee is 10 to 20 degrees cooler than Tucson and Phoenix -- which can be blistering hot in the summer.

"Bisbee is for people who don't like the ordinary," explained longtime resident Cynthia Conroy, who was quoted by Budget Travel when the magazine named Bisbee one of the "coolest small towns in the USA" a few years ago.

The article also pointed out some of the town's more eccentric characters, such as Greg -- no last name -- who has trained his pets to stand in a pyramid: bird atop cat atop dog. (Sometimes, there's a mouse, too.) Greg could regularly be seen parading his menagerie around.

As in Pittsburgh, motorists heading to Bisbee from the west drive through a long tunnel through a mountain -- Mule Pass Tunnel -- to reach the city.

A friend and her husband in Tucson, who enjoy weekend getaways to Bisbee, said when she passes through that tunnel it's like passing into an alternative universe.

But first, Tombstone.

On the way to Bisbee on Arizona State Route 80 you pass right through this notorious town whose famous shootout on Oct. 26, 1881, at the OK Corral (which actually happened in a vacant lot next to the OK Corral) epitomized the wildness of the Old West.

There are just a few streets today in this town of roughly 1,500 people that heavily supports itself by tourism. Much of the action takes place on Allen Street, a pedestrian-only stretch replicating an Old West downtown with raised, wooden sidewalks; saloons; T-shirt, Western wear, ice cream and fudge shops; and other businesses. The historic district is scattered with re-enactors in full cowboy and pioneer garb, stagecoaches and covered wagons. It's also home to the original Bird Cage Theatre, a former saloon, theater, gambling hall and brothel that between 1881 and 1889 was open 24/7 to provide all sorts of sordid entertainment. It claims 140 bullet holes in the walls, ceilings, bar and floor.

PG map: Bisbee, Ariz.
(Click image for larger version)

In addition to various tours and a daily gunfight re-enactment, you can get two official interpretations of the famous shootout at a display in the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park on Toughnut Street (entrance fee $5; open daily 9 to 5 p.m.). Built in 1882 for $50,000, the now-restored courthouse serves as a museum that traces the history of Tombstone to its roots as a surprisingly opulent silver mining town (its population rose to between 15,000 to 20,000 in its heyday). It also covers the raids against Arizona settlers by Apache Chief Geronimo and other local history.

One area of the courthouse is dedicated to the heavily researched, step-by-step descriptions of the 30-second shootout, which grew out of tensions that boiled over between Tombstone's wealthy mercantile class and the rural ranchers and cattle rustlers. A dispute over who was responsible for a couple of stagecoach robberies eventually led to the gunfight between lawmen Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and cowboys Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton. In the end, the McLaurys and Clanton were killed, and Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded. Although the lawmen stood trial for murder, they were all cleared.

The courthouse also includes its beautiful original courtroom as well as the reconstructed gallows in the backyard, where criminals were hanged for their various misdeeds.

Before leaving town, stop at Boothill Graveyard (408 N. Highway 80, 1-520-457-3300), which is one of the most interesting parts of Tombstone. It has more than 250 graves stretching back to 1878. Many of the headstones include handwritten explanations of how the people died: "John Heath taken from county jail and lynched by Bisbee mob, Feb. 22, 1884" or "Here lies George Johnson, Hanged by mistake, 1882. He was right, we was wrong, but we strung him up and now he's gone."

The three victims of the infamous 1881 shootout also are buried here.

Like Tombstone, Bisbee got its start as a mining camp and evolved into one of the richest mineral sites in the world. The Copper Queen Mine, which opened in 1877, produced nearly 3 million ounces of gold and more than 8 billion pounds of copper by the early 1900s. By that time, the Bisbee community had more than 20,000 people and was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. The town is named after Judge DeWitt Bisbee, one of the major financial backers for the Copper Queen Mine.

When the mining industry shut down in the 1970s, workers and other businesses scattered. Aging hippies and artists streamed in to restore its Victorian homes and refurbish crumbling businesses. Today, the downtown is filled with boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, an independent bookstore and various watering holes. The community has roughly 6,000 residents.

Among its historic gems is the 111-year-old Copper Queen Hotel (11 Howell Ave., 1-520-432-2216; www.copperqueen.com), the oldest continuing operating hotel in Arizona. Its lobby, lined with authentic Italian tile, is laid out like a museum, with old pictures and descriptions. Around the corner is the Stock Exchange Saloon (15 Brewery Ave., 1-520-432-1333; www.stockexchangesaloon.com), which touts top quality cocktails and craft beer, luxury suite lodging and music. Cochise County moved the county seat from Tombstone to Bisbee around the time of the Depression, and its Art Deco courthouse opened in 1931. It's reputed to have a ghost on the top floor.

Like Pittsburgh, Bisbee also is known for its steps. From the business district, the town rises straight up, with long staircases connecting layers of streets, homes and other buildings. In fact, each October, the town hosts the Bisbee 1000 Great Stair Climb, in which participants traverse nine staircases (which follow old mule paths) that include a total of 1,000 steps. The event's website proclaims this is the "only outdoor stair climb in the U.S.," which might come as a surprise to the organizers of the South Side Slope's StepTrek -- which involves 2,700 steps -- and is also held each October in Pittsburgh.

Still, Bisbee is so hilly that each floor of its four-story high school is on a ground floor.

The website for the visitor's bureau lists 16 movies that have been filmed in Bisbee, including "Roswell," Stephen King's "Desperation," and "World Gone Wild." Fans may remember the town from the popular 2007 movie "3:10 to Yuma," starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Even though the movie was filmed in New Mexico, most of it is set in Bisbee.

Best-selling mystery writer J.A. Jance grew up in Bisbee and has set the 15 books of her Joanna Brady series here.

Toward the end of our visit -- after we had spent hours visiting jewelry, gem and crystal meditation shops, antiques stores, art galleries and Atalanta's Music and Books (38 Main St., 1-520-432-9976), which also carries art supplies and a full line of hemp products -- we got a drink at the Copper Queen Hotel. One of its regular bands, Terry Wolf & Back Porch Swing, was playing under the red glow of the antique lamps in the saloon. Everyone in the aging crowd seemed to know each other as they sat sipping beers and bourbons on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Ms. Wolf, in her early 60s, with her jet black hair parted into two long braids, projected the image of a Native American/First Nations gal. But she actually grew up on Long Island and shared the tale of sneaking off with her boyfriend decades earlier to Woodstock. Her secret was out when Janis Joplin pointed her out in the crowd and her picture landed on the cover of a New York newspaper. She feared a grounding for life until her proud papa came home carrying a large stack of those newspapers.

She and her band -- her long-haired guitarist was missing some front teeth -- were well into their AARP years but fit perfectly into the Bisbee landscape.

As we headed back to Tucson, it didn't take us long before we were hit with reality.

Just a few miles west of Tombstone on Route 80 we came upon a road checkpoint where all cars and trucks were required to stop to be inspected by U.S. border patrol guards. Gruff guards shined their flashlights into our back seat to make sure we were not smuggling any undocumented citizens.

I guess we were back in the red state.


Virginia Linn: vlinn@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1662.

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