Saturday, December 18, 2010

Silver and Copper

I'm reminded of Burl Ives' Christmas song "Silver and Gold", except this excerpt is about silver and copper - mine tours.

First stop: Tombstone.  THE infamous Tombstone of the old west.  You know - the Earp brothers - Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan, and Doc Holliday.  The town was discovered by a prospector, Ed Schieffelin, who was told that the only thing he'd discover "out there" was his tombstone, so when he did discover his first silver mine, he named it Tombstone.  The motherlode of silver became so rich, the town that built up around the mines in the area later became known as Tombstone.  It is probably the best preserved living western town - people actually live here, it's not just a staged attraction like a Hollywood set.  Dubbed "The town too tough to die", it has some of the best named merchants ever - Big Nose Kate's Saloon, the Crystal Palace Saloon, the O.K. Corral (where the famous gun fight between the Earps and Clanton Gang is staged daily), the Bird Cage Theatre (with its original and beautiful cherrywood bar, it's said to be haunted and was stage to many famous people, including Sarah Bernhardt), and Boothill Cemetery.

Marilyn at the bar of the Bird Cage Theatre in Tombstone
We tour the Good Enough Silver Mine which opened in 1878.  The labour at that time was all manual, of course - a chisel and hammer.  But the silver ore was rich.  The ore had to be hauled about 10 miles to the nearest river for processing by horse and wagon, and by the 1930s the profit was no longer there so the mine was closed.  We also walk around the town for a couple of hours and have lunch at the Crystal Palace.  The history here is amazing.  Many of the buildings are original, like the Bird Cage Theatre and the Longhorn Saloon, or parts of them are; others are reconstructed.  The town has seen many fires - in 1881 and 1882 - which have destroyed many parts of the town; a fire destroyed the Six Gun City Wild West Show building just last week (arson is suspected).  The town IS a bit of a tourist trap and everything is expensive, but the history is interesting and all of the merchants are dressed in late 1800s garb.  It's interesting to talk to them, just the same.  They all know the history and are all willing to talk your ear off.

Miners working by candlelight in the Queen Mine
Next stop: Bisbee, a small town about 20 miles south of Tombstone, but not nearly so famous.  Bisbee is a beautiful town with Victorian style homes built on the sides of the mountain and shops in the valley, and in view of the tailings of the Copper Queen Mine.  The highway splits the tailings in half with the Lavendar Pit (this is an open pit mine and it is so named after one of the executives of the original owners) on the west side.

Brad working the Queen Mine
Brad and I suit up in yellow slickers, hardhats and flashlights, and board the electric train for an underground Queen Mine Tour with a retired miner.  We get our own personal tour since no one else shows up for the noon tour.  There are approximately 2,300 miles of tunnels under the town of Bisbee, but we will travel only 1,500 feet into one shaft.  The mine operated from 1887 to 1943, producing 8 billion pounds of copper, plus gold, silver, lead, zinc and turquoise.  It was this wealth that led it to being named the "Queen of the Copper Camps".  Our tour guide shows us how the miners drilled during the different eras, progressing from manual chisels and hammers to pneumatic drills.  We can also see where they drilled and blasted the rock with dynamite, finding the veins of copper by identifying the different minerals.  Turquoise, azurite and malachite are typically found where there is copper sulfate.  It's hard for us to believe that these three beautiful minerals were waste rock in those days.  Many of the workers took chunks of them home to make jewelry or other trinkets, or even stone fireplaces and walls.  Today, Bisbee turquoise sells for $2,000 per pound!  Today, the minerals are NOT waste rock.

Museum mineral sample from mine cave
We also visit the Mine Museum in Historic Bisbee, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute.  It is extremely well done with great exhibits showing not only mining life, but life in general.  It also talks about a strange event in 1917 which the local historian, a 90-year old frisky gentleman who fell down a 3 foot ledge and hurt his leg the previous year while hiking (!!!), recounts to us even though a video has already described it to us.  At the time, the First World War was in full force.  Bisbee was the largest producer of copper, and the copper was used to produce shells for ammunition.  In 1917, the mine workers went on strike, their union having somehow been infiltrated by some Germans (this part was unclear).  The miners were mostly immigrants from Britain, Europe, and Mexico.  The Governor deputized 130 citizens and gave them lists of names to round up - in all about 90 were causing trouble, but about 1,800 were actually put on trains and DEPORTED to Mexico, even though most of them weren't Mexicans.  And they were told that the border would be watched and they were not to return; they didn't.  Their families had to join them where they were.  How awful!  The other workers returned to work and copper production continued.  The Governor was not re-elected (it was an election year).

Upstairs in the museum is a mineral display that knocks our socks off!  The azurite, malachite, gypsum, and other mineral crystals that I can't pronounce or recall the names of here are spectacular.  And they are all from the Bisbee mines where workers broke through into caves full of these beautiful mineral formations.  The specimens are said to be worth tens of thousands of dollars each.  It is said that if one area contains 200 different mineral species, then it is rare and an extremely rich find.  There are some 300 different mineral species here in Bisbee!  If you are a geologist (Dolores and Michel), then you must come here!

As we leave our RV Park in the morning (Turquoise Valley - a golf club/RV park owned by a Canadian, no less!), we notice a sign we hadn't noticed before.  The sign tells us our highway is to the left and Mexico is to the right.  How far? we wonder. I look to the right and WOW!  The border fence is right there!  A few hundred yards up the road!  Well, that does explain the number of Border Patrol vehicles we have seen in the area.  I check the map and notice that the town we are staying in, Naco (rhymes with taco), is indeed right on the border and there is a sister town called Naco on the Mexico side.  There is a huge mountain that we've been enjoying the view of too, which must be in Mexico too, we realize.  Huh!  Who knew?

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