The big hole of Bisbee

Water sits at the bottom of the pit waiting to evaporate. (Photograph by Devon Confrey)
A pool of brown muck sits at the bottom of the pit waiting to evaporate. (Photograph by Devon Confrey / Arizona Sonora News)

Left with a hole, what’s a town to do?

Bisbee – with its tunnel, red rock, hippies, stairs, the Copper Queen Hotel, motorcycle geeks singing Fleetwood Mac, slag, the coffee roaster with dreadlocks – is here because of a mile-wide hole on the town’s edge.

The city built quickly around a hill that mining tore open. Now residents live looking away from Bisbee’s ugly side, preserving what’s pretty, decorating a wasteland.

A fence with barbed wire surrounds the open-pit mine in Bisbee, Ariz. (Photograph by Devon Confrey)
A fence with barbed wire surrounds the open-pit mine in Bisbee, Ariz. (Photograph by Devon Confrey / Arizona Sonora News)

Bisbee’s big hole, made up of three open-pit mines — Sacramento, Lavender and Holbrook — that began a century ago, is an eyesore but one of the town’s greatest attractions. Closed since the 1970s, and surrounded with a rust-colored fence topped with multiple layers of barbed wire, the big hole is 4,000 feet from east to west, 5,000 feet from north to south, and 850 feet at its deepest.

The hole is a stone’s throw from old downtown. Old Bisbee resembles a small San Francisco, but without the ocean, and years after being hit by a life-obliterating copper-mining meteor. The pit – gold, red, yellow, brown, gray, tan, orange – looks like Mars.

Life on such a planet may have been expectable — or at least acceptable — in the past, when money was brought out of the hole as fast as people and machines could carry. Miners worked for days without going home when they hit a “hot vein.” In the time of the mine, Bisbee boomed.

Bisbee and the mine as they are seen from Google Earth
Bisbee and the mine as seen from space. (Photograph by Google Earth)

A purple, pink sunset turns a pool at the base of the pit the color of vomit; under the full moon, beetle black. On a morning in January, the brown pond in the hole looked to be 50 feet in diameter and who knows how deep. A ditch directs rain and snowmelt into the mine to evaporate, keeping chemical drainage away from wells.

A road remains into the pit’s final level though other roads have washed out. Visitors, cancel your trip to Italy to see ancient amphitheaters. The walls of the hole in Bisbee’s backyard are now more eroded than any ruins.

Most of what came out of the mine remains in mountains of dump. The town is so surrounded by rock waste that Bisbee doesn’t try to disguise its ugliness.

Miners once used elevators like this one to get underground. (Photograph by Devon Confrey)
Miners once used elevators like this one to get underground. (Photograph by Devon Confrey / Arizona Sonora News)

The first shovel went in to dig the pit in 1917, though the first shipment of copper came out of Bisbee in 1878. Underground mines, once mazes for miles into the mountain, are marked now by oil rig-looking elevator shafts to nowhere. Mules were brought into the ground and left there to work for the rest of their lives. These entrances to the underworld have been flooded and filled since.

Up until the 1970s, miners removed more than 151 million tons of ore and waste rock from the hole. Let’s compare that to Arizona today: that’s 22 tons of dirt for every person in the state.

Of the $10.3 billion in product that came out of the mine during this time was 7.7 billion pounds of copper, along with other metals – lead, zinc, gold, and silver.

What use is Bisbee’s pit today?

Could they tear down the fence surrounding the hole, cover it in floor-to-wall carpeting and fill it with more books than would fit in all of the University of Arizona libraries combined? What about converting what’s left into a go-cart track?

A bouquet sits in the fence above the mine at a viewing area.
A bouquet sits in the fence above the mine at a viewing area. (Photograph by Devon Confrey / Arizona Sonora News)

Freeport-McMoRan, one of the biggest mining companies in Arizona, has owned the pit since 2007, when it bought Phelps Dodge, the company that dug the hole. In recent years Freeport-McMoRan started covering some of the rock waste surrounding the hole with soil and desert plants. The hills are now a discolored purple.

“You always hear rumors about what the mining company is up to,” said Jennifer Luria, supervisor at the visitor center in Bisbee. “I always thought it would be cool as a water attraction, something you could walk your dog along next to.”

Luria, who has lived in Bisbee for the last nine years, doesn’t revel in the hole’s weirdness, but doesn’t mind it much, either.

“When you drive past it everyday, it becomes part of the normal scenery,” she said.

Devon Confrey is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at devonconfrey@email.arizona.edu.

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