Park the RV, don a hard hat, miner’s headlamp and yellow slicker and join the nearly 50,000 visitors who escape the Arizona heat each year by descending into the always cool (47-degree) Queen Mine in Bisbee. Retired hard-rock miners serve as your tour guides, leading you 1,500 feet underground and back a century in time, while recounting mining techniques, dangers and practical jokes.
Bisbee was the center of one of the greatest copper camps the world has ever known. Before production ceased in 1975, local mines produced precious metals valued in excess of $6 billion (at 1975 prices), making it one of the richest mining districts in the world. This staggering amount of wealth came from the production of more than 8 billion pounds of copper, 2.8 million ounces of gold, 77 million ounces of silver, 371 million pounds of zinc and 304 million pounds of lead!
Hugh Jones discovered copper in the Mule Mountains in 1875, but left, disappointed that it wasn’t silver. A few years later an Army lieutenant named Dunn, who was in charge of a cavalry unit from the nearby Fort Huachuca army post, was on a scouting mission against the Apache Indians when he found a rock laced with ore. He told a prospector named George Warren about the find and they struck a deal for Warren to locate claims and work the property with Dunn as a partner. On his way to the discovery, Warren shared some whisky with friends, soon acquired new partners and together they staked out claims, leaving Dunn out.
Limited copper production began on individual claims around 1880. Gradually well-capitalized companies became involved, took over the claims, and went into full production. Phelps Dodge Corporation, through a subsidiary of the Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Company, became the prevailing force and eventually the sole operator of the mining district. Building on its success in Bisbee, Phelps Dodge soon became one of the largest copper producers in the United States.
Queen Mine Tour
Phelps Dodge closed all the underground mines in Bisbee in the summer of 1975. Mayor Chuck Eads saw an opportunity to preserve mining history, draw tourists and provide jobs for out of work miners by creating a mine tour. With the cooperation of Phelps Dodge, a tour through a portion of the world-famous Queen Mine became a reality. Scores of volunteers removed piles of fallen rock and re-timbered the old mine tunnels. Local residents and businesses furnished food and other support for the volunteers, and the project was helped by a grant from the federal Economic Development Administration.
On February 1, 1976, Queen Mine Tours officially opened. Since then, in excess of one million visitors from all 50 states and more than 30 foreign countries have enjoyed the trip into the mountain on the underground tram.
The tour is a genuine mining experience led by miners. Most of the guides have worked in the local mines for many years, and they provide factual first-hand information.
Your tour starts in a former mine building that has been converted to a visitors center. After purchasing your ticket for the next tour, you can wander through the many interpretive displays on copper mining. About 20 minutes before your tour departs, you will be paged to pick up your lantern, slicker and hardhat. Next you will board the electric tram and be given safety instructions for keeping all of your body parts attached while the tram is in motion. You will also be forewarned about the friendly ghost that inhabits the mine and enjoys taking the tram for a joyride when it is not occupied by tourists. Through several stops you’ll venture deeper and deeper underground, and get an introduction to hard-rock mining.
You will learn the difference between a stope and a winze, a shaft and an adit, how proper placement of dynamite resulted in the most efficient ore removal, and how miners negotiated and communicated through more than 100 miles of underground passages.
While hard-rock mining was tough work, there was fun to be had at the expense of new hires. Be sure and ask your guide about pranks involving the toilet car. Let’s just say RVs didn’t contain the first toilets set in motion! New hires also learned the hard way that carrying steel rails over your shoulder near the ceiling mounted electric tramline was a bad practice. Of course, the seasoned miners would never share this information in advance, as they needed a little entertainment from time to time.
The Queen Mine tour is entertaining, educational, fun for the whole family, and a great way to beat a hot Arizona afternoon.
Dave Helgeson and his wife promote RV and manufactured home shows in Western Washington. They spend their free time traveling and enjoying the RV lifestyle
IF YOU GO:
Queen Mine Tours is open seven days a week. Tours last about an hour and 15 minutes. Reservations are suggested. Tours leave from the Queen Mine Tour Building immediately south of Old Historic Bisbee. Call (866) 432-2071 or visit www.queenminetour.com. Large RV parking is limited.
The Queen Mine RV Park is adjacent to the tour. The park has 25 RV spaces, great views, and is within walking distance of the tour and Old Bisbee. It welcomes large rigs and has full hookups, shower facilities and cable TV. Phone (520) 432-5006 or visit queenminervpark.parks.officelive.com/default.aspx.