It’s easy to see the development of communities of the Old West that came into being in the late 1800s as being related only to local issues, such as a railroad, a cattle trail or a silver mine, but despite its location in extreme southern Arizona, Bisbee history exhibits a direct parallel to the growth of the nation.
A copper-mining city that sprang from an 1877 discovery, just as Tombstone, 25 miles to the north, came from an 1877 silver discover, Bisbee soon became an urban center, more like St. Louis or San Francisco than the host of other communities of the Southwest.
The Bisbee mines produced so much copper in their early years that the community was able to attract the trappings of wealth unlike other such towns, especially after the railroad arrived in 1889. Its women’s fashion stores, for example, were able to offer the same dresses that the upper crust of New York City were wearing, and at the same time, so ladies in Bisbee could read the ads in out-of-town newspapers and go to the locals stores expecting to find the same offerings.
Because of the city’s proximity to the Sea of Cortez and to Los Angeles, seafood was offered fresh in many of the community’s better restaurants. Bisbee history shows that because there was such a demand for such upscale purchases, there was sufficient competition to keep the prices down.
Bisbee not the largest, but the wealthiest
Bisbee was never the largest city in Arizona, playing second fiddle to Tucson during its first half century of existence, but it was the wealthiest during much of this period. Bank deposits and assessed valuations were higher than those of any other city or mining camp in the territory (till 1912) and in the state.
The copper mines produced rich ores that gave the big companies tremendous profits (many shares of stock were traded at the local office of the New York Stock Exchange) and allowed for free spending, whether for salaries to attract the best workers or supplies to enrich a large group of merchants.
The wealth of Bisbee mines didn’t just trickle down; there was a cascade of money that reached most all strata of society around the community in the early years of Bisbee history.
Copper production in Bisbee grew apace with the revolution that had been instigated by Thomas Edison in the early 1880s. Bisbee mines mines were the fountain from which the Age of Electricity erupted, but the benefits of ever-growing technology came back to the city as well, to be used in the mine and in the community as a whole.
An urban center, not a frontier outpost
As other cities around the nation were transformed by the new industrial age, so was Bisbee. And this went deep into the society. For example, the two major mining companies — Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Co. and the Calumet & Arizona Mining Co. — didn’t compete directly in the production of copper, but rather on another level. Bisbee history shows that each sought to have the best baseball team or the best hospital, employing the latest technology available.
Social issues also played out in Bisbee history as they did in the rest of the nation as well. While the nation was debating the right of women to vote, in Bisbee women got the right to vote in a school bond election as early as 1904.
Its great early wealth has given Bisbee history an intensity and variety far beyond that of most Western mining camp. Bisbee mines were known throughout the industry worldwide for their richness and productivity. This certainly is a basis for making the study of Bisbee history far more exciting than its location and size would normally indicate.