Back in 1880, copper mining attracted immigrants from Russia, Serbia, Ireland, Mexico, and Italy to this small community, which became the most prosperous settlement in Arizona. Situated just 6 miles from the Mexican border, a conglomeration of architectural styles filled the steep narrow streets built into Tombstone Canyon, south of the Mule Mountains.
Gambling, prostitution, heavy drinking, and fighting were common among the miners who clustered in ethnic neighborhood gangs outside of work. When mining ended in 1975, after producing $6 billion worth of metals, nearly 30,000 residents abandoned their homes. Artists, writers, and hippies moved in, snatching up vacant homes for less than $1,000. World-renown artist Ted Grazia once lived here.
Today, Bisbee generates revenue by promoting tourism. Visitors can ride into an underground mine shaft on the Copper Queen Mine tour or venture to the Lavender Pit, an open-air pit outside of Bisbee on US 80. Trolley buses and jeeps offer daily tours of the town, where Victorian homes and old buildings have been renovated into galleries, restaurants, and B&B's. But I was hoofing it up and down the San Francisco-like hillside stairways, exploring the town on my own. Views from the top were impressive as mountains ringed the canyon's historical buildings crafted with bell towers, gingerbread, and Italianate decor. Limited by time, I couldn't take any of the tours or hike to the very top of the hill on OK Street, where colorful candlelit shrines reward those who tackle the steep, rocky path.
Wandering through one residential area, I spied a sign pointing to the Oliver House. Not knowing what it was, I followed the walkway across a shady creek and stood facing an iron gate. Beyond was an inviting Victorian home with an old-fashioned porch. An older man came up behind me on the bridge. Embarrassed to have been caught snooping around private property, I asked, "What is the Oliver House?"
"A B&B. Go on inside. I'm meeting the owners for lunch. C'mon, I'll introduce you." He wouldn't take no for an answer, even though I was soon leaving. Within minutes, the young owner was showing me around and suggesting "neat shots" when she spied my camera. The home, built in 1908 and supposedly haunted, offers 14 rooms from $55. (Phone: 520/432-1900) Leaving with her business partner and the older man, Kate encouraged me to stay and photograph whatever I wanted.
But I didn't feel right doing that. Instead, I followed her suggestion to explore the back alley through the historic district and photographed gargoyles, copper angel sculptures, and a musical note gate on the way back to the main street where jewelry stores feature minerals mined in the area. (Bisbee Blue is the famous turquoise solely produced and sold at the Lavender Pit.)
I grabbed a miner's sandwich inside the Tourist Complex and met up with hubby before rushing back to Tucson. For those traveling independently (we were touring with American Photo Magazine, and allowed a mere hour), there are 30 ghost towns in Cochise Country.