Copper Towns of Arizona

Enjoy These Historical Mining Towns

Overview

Copper mining in Arizona has been a major industry since the 1800s. Arizona is one of the leading copper-producing states in the U.S., producing a record five billion dollars worth of copper in 2006. Copper mining also produces gold and silver as byproducts. Byproduct molybdenum from copper mining makes Arizona the nation's second-largest producer of that metal.

Although copper mineralization was found by the earliest Spanish explorers of Arizona, the territory was remote, and copper could not be profitably mined and shipped. Early Spanish, Mexican, and American prospectors searched for gold and silver, and ignored copper. It was not until the completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1876 that copper became profitable to mine and ship to market.

All copper mining was by underground methods until the early 20th century. The Bingham Canyon mine in Utah successfully mined a large low-grade copper deposit from a large open pit, or surface mine, and the same technique was applied to Arizona’s porphyry copper deposits. The first mine in Arizona to use this process was opened in Ajo, AZ in 1917.

Copper mining towns in Arizona are great places to visit on day, or even weekend, trips.  They offer a glimpse into history of the Old West while you enjoy mine tours and hiking trails. Our favorites are Willcox, Benson and Douglas. We also recommend the Copper Horseshoe for those wanting the ultimate immersion in Arizona mining towns.

To plan your perfect trip to a copper town, call a AAA Travel professional toll-free 888-870-9408 or stop by your local AAA office.

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The Copper Horseshoe

A 206 mile loop through Cochise County in the Southeast corner of Arizona makes up what is known as the Copper Horseshoe. Originally towns were a day apart by stagecoach. Today, towns are about a 30 minute drive apart. The loop trip will probably take you a little over 6 hours (more if you stay for awhile sightseeing in the towns). You can enter the horseshoe loop via the Willcox or the Benson exits off Interstate 10.

Bisbee - Bisbee became internationally renowned in the 1880s with the discovery of the Copper Queen Lode. By the early 1900s, Bisbee was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. But, by the early 1970s most of the mines had closed and the miner's shacks had been replaced with artist studios. Today, over 100 resident artists with more than 25 galleries and studios, and a culture geared to encouraging art and history, make Bisbee a year round place to stop on a quick getaway. It's a good place to spend the night. Plan to take a tour of the Queen Mine, a walk through the downtown shops & galleries and a visit to the Bisbee Mining & Historical museum. For information call the Bisbee Information Center, (866) 224-7233 or (520) 432-5421.

Willcox - Located on I-10 at the eastern end of our "Copper Horseshoe," Willcox is the gateway to the Chiricahua Mountains, Cochise Stronghold and the deserts of southern Arizona. At one time, Willcox was considered the cattle capitol of the nation. The 3,733 residents of Willcox are proud of their cowboy heritage and their favorite cowboy, Rex Allen, who was raised there. The town holds Rex Allen Days on the first weekend of October every year. Visitors will want to see the Rex Allen Museum and Cowboy Hall of Fame (on Railroad Ave).

Benson - In the early 1900's, the community grew along with the demand for copper and silver, which were mined in the San Pedro Valley and shipped to Benson for smelting and distribution via the railroad. Today, Benson provides important services to travelers on Interstate 10 and is a gateway for tourists visiting southeastern Arizona and Kartchner Caverns. Benson Visitors Center: 520-586-2245 or email at bensonvisitorctr@theriver.com.

Chiricahua National Monument - 12,000 acres in the Chiricahua Mountains about 31 miles southeast of Willcox on State Route 186. The mountains rise above the surrounding grasslands to elevations ranging between 5,100 and 7,800 feet. Drive to the top for spectacular views of the surrounding valley and unique volcanic columns. Daily tours of the Faraway Ranch house tell about the Swedish immigrant family that settled in the area. Mecca for hikers (17 miles of trails) and birders (hummers, orioles, more). The Monument is also home to animals not often seen in other parts of the Sonoran Desert--white-tailed deer, bears, and mountain lions.

Bowie - Not strictly part of the Copper Horseshoe drive trip, Bowie was named after Old Fort Bowie. For more than 30 years Fort Bowie and Apache Pass were the focal point of military operations eventually culminating in the surrender of Geronimo in 1886. The Fort Bowie National Historic Site is 14 miles south of Bowie. Remnants of the old Fort have been preserved.

Douglas - Douglas lies right across the border from the Mexican town of Agua Prieta. In 1901, Douglas was founded as the site of a smelter to process copper from the mines in nearby Bisbee. Maps for self-guided historical tours are available at the Douglas Chamber of Commerce 1125 Pan American Ave., Douglas AZ 85607 or phone (520) 364-2477.

Sierra Vista - Sierra Vista hosts Ft. Huachuca, home of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center. A nature lover's paradise, Sierra Vista lies on the slopes of the Huachuca Mountains, a haven for bird and wildlife, with more than 170 species, including 14 species of hummingbirds. Visit Coronado National Memorial, San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area and Ramsey Canyon Preserve. Visitors Information Center: 1-800-288-3861.  

Tombstone - What exactly did happen at the OK Corral? See the Earps and Doc Holliday fight the McLaurys and Clantons in daily reenactments. "The Town Too Tough to Die" offers numerous tourist attractions, stores, historical sites, and museums.

To plan your perfect trip through the Copper Horseshoe, call a AAA Travel professional toll-free 888-870-9408 or stop by your local AAA office.

Bisbee

About Bisbee

Bisbee, 90 miles southeast of Tucson and nestled amongst the Mule Mountains, is the picturesque county seat of historic Cochise County. The community was founded in 1880 and named after Judge DeWitt Bisbee, a financial backer of the Copper Queen Mine.

Once known as “the Queen of the Copper Camps”, this Old West mining camp proved to be one of the richest mineral sites in the world, producing nearly three million ounces of gold and more than eight billion pounds of copper, not to mention the silver, lead and zinc that came from these rich Mule Mountains. By the early 1900s, the Bisbee community was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco.

Bisbee, with a population of over 20,000 people in the early 1900’s, had become one of the most cultured cities in the Southwest. Despite its culture, however, the rough edges of the mining camps could be found in notorious Brewery Gulch, with its saloons and shady ladies. Brewery Gulch, which in its heyday boasted upwards of 47 saloons and was considered the "liveliest spot between El Paso and San Francisco". Bisbee offered other recreational pursuits in that it was home to the state’s first community library, a popular opera house, the state’s oldest ball fields and the state’s first golf course.

In 1908, a fire ravaged most of Bisbee's commercial district along Main Street, leaving nothing but a pile of ashes, but the residents of Bisbee quickly began reconstruction and by 1910, most of the district had been rebuilt and remains completely intact today.

Bisbee was a thriving community until the large scale mining operations became unprofitable in the mid 1970’s. As mining employees left to go elsewhere, many artistic free spirits found Bisbee an ideal, attractive, and inexpensive location to settle and pursue their artistic endeavors. The small town's legacy has long been preserved not only in its architecture and mining landscape, but is world-renowned for its diverse minerals and wealth of copper. Although its mines closed in the 70s, a museum has welcomed, educated and entertained more than a half-million visitors ever since. Featured among its exhibits is "Bisbee: Urban Outpost on the Frontier", an in-depth look at the depths - and heights - to which miners and settlers went to carve a communtiy and a living out of rock.

Things to do

1,000 Stair Climb Bisbee 1000 The Great Stair Climb Fundraiser is the only outdoor stair climb in the U.S. and arguably one of the most unique and challenging events in the world. The course features nine staircases connected by winding roads that take participants through some of the most scenic parts of Old Bisbee.  This years event is on October 18th.

Queen Mine Tour Don a mining lantern, hat and slicker and ride the mine train deep into the mine and experience the life of the miners as they tell you how they toiled in the subterranean tunnels. Fun and educational for the whole family. Tours last about one hour and are offered 5 times a day at 9am, 10:30am, noon, 2pm and 3:30pm, every day. 

Old Bisbee Ghost Tour The Old Bisbee Ghost Tour is the only one of its kind.  Your Ghost Host will lead you on this walking tour through Old Bisbee's streets, stairways, and old alleys after dark on an adventure to discover and learn about the ghosts that haunt this hundred twenty five year old town.  Learn their history and favorite haunts while seeing Old Bisbee when very few do, after sunset.  

Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum With a history deserving of National Landmark status, it's only fitting that Bisbee's past be captured and reflected in a museum like no other. Which is exactly why the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum recently joined forces with the Smithsonian's Affiliation Program.  Although its mines closed in the 70s, the small town's legacy has long been preserved not only in its architecture and mining landscape, but in a museum that has welcomed, educated and entertained more than a half-million visitors ever since. Featured among its exhibits is "Bisbee: Urban Outpost on the Frontier," an in-depth look at the depths - and heights - to which miners and settlers went to carve a communtiy and a living out of rock. 

Bisbee Mini Museum of the Bizarre In the late 1800's many wealthy people in Europe started collecting odd and eccentric items from around the world. Eventually people started showcasing their oddities in traveling road shows. In the United States people started opening up their 'dime museums' in the back of their small town storefronts to entice the public to view their strange and unusual collections.  The Bisbee Museum of the Bizarre showcases Renee Gardner’s collection of strange, unusual, and odd objects from around the world. Items in the collection include a mummified fairy, two-headed squirrel,  glass eye,  death mask of John Dillinger and atomic dime to name a few.

Getting There 

Bisbee is located in Cochise County about 93 miles Southeast of Tucson.  Take I-10 East to Benson and exit to AZ State Route 80 South.

To plan your trip to Bisbee, call a AAA Travel professional toll-free 888-870-9408 or stop by your local AAA office.

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Willcox

About Willcox

The City of Willcox was founded in 1880, at that time it was known as Maley’s Camp.  In 1880 the Southern Pacific Railroad built the Railroad Depot and when the first train stopped in the small camp General Orlando B. Wilcox was on board, those spectators recognizing the General began chanting “Wilcox! Wilcox! Wilcox!” A reporter from Tucson went back and reported in the Arizona Daily Star about the new railroad town known as Wilcox, and so the town was renamed. In 1891 the spelling of Willcox was changed from Wilcox with only one L to Willcox with two L’s. The City of Willcox was incorporated in 1915.

Willcox, AZ has a interesting and somewhat wild history.  On July 06, 1900 Warren Earp, brother of Wyatt Earp, was shot outside a saloon at the intersection of Maley Street and Railroad Avenue. He is buried in the Historic Willcox Cemetery. Singing Cowboy Rex Allen is another famous resident of Willcox. Rex was the last of the silver screen cowboys. And he is most remembered as the narrator of over one hundred Walt Disney TV shows and movies. 

Things to Do

Museum of the Southwest is housed in the Willcox Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center and commemorates the history of the local area.

The Rex Allen Arizona Cowboy Museum and the Cowboy Hall of Fame is in historic downtown Willcox on Railroad Avenue. The museum houses memorabilia of the famous cowboy, movie star and entertainer, Rex Allen. The Cowboy Hall of Fame is a portrait gallery of local cattlemen and women.

Old Willcox Cemetery contains several notable headstones, one of which is Warren Earp, the brother of the famous Tombstone Marshall Wyatt Earp.

Wings Over Willcox event is a celebration of the Sandhill Cranes who winter over on the Playa and feed daily in the local fields of the Sulphur Springs Valley. The event includes tours of the prime bird watching areas, a trade show, seminars, workshops on "the birds of southeastern Arizona", photo contest, and a banquet. Southeastern Arizona is considered the birding capital of the world.

Magic Circle Bike Ride held on Labor Day Weekend. To find out more information call the Willcox Chamber of Commerce.

Rex Allen Days are over the first weekend of October. Rex Allen was born and raised in Willcox and considered Willcox his "hometown". Willcox honors him by celebrating Rex Allen Days. Some of the events are an induction of the new cowboy for the Willcox Cowboy of Fame, a softball tournament, turtle race, rodeo, country music concert, and western dances, country fair, and many other activities.

Christmas Apple Festival falls on the first weekend in December. It includes judged arts & crafts show, bazaar, local entertainment, and much more

Getting There

Willcox is located in the southeastern part of Arizona, in a valley surrounded by mountains. Located 50 miles from the border of New Mexico, 80 miles from Mexico and 80 miles from Tucson, the town is easy to get to - and offers a very friendly atmosphere full of history, ranching, and agriculture.

To plan your trip to Wilcox, call a AAA Travel professional toll-free 888-870-9408 or stop by your local AAA office.

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Benson

About Benson

Benson was born of the union of the Southern Pacific Railroad and the mining regions of the San Pedro Valley in the 1880’s. The Southern Pacific, coming overland from California, chose the Benson site to cross the San Pedro River. It was necessary to establish a junction point to obtain ore from and ship freight to the mines at Tombstone, Fairbank, Contention, and Bisbee. Copper and silver ore were brought in covered wagons to Benson and then shipped out on the railroad.

The economy of Benson grew with the demand for silver and copper; a smelter erected by the enterprising firm of Salisbury and White of San Francisco operated sporadically from 1881 to 1909. The ore was brought to the Benson smelter, converted to bullion and shipped out on the railroad.  A freight depot, equal in size to that of Tucson, handled the daily shipments of copper ore (1,400 pounds a day) and other freight. A roundhouse was built to house auxiliary locomotives, which assisted trains up the steep grades.

As more railroad lines were built, Benson developed into a "Hub City" and the railroad traffic brought in its wake a need for retail trades and services; hotel, saloons, livery stables, merchandising establishments, and restaurants served the area. The mining camps and the Latter Day Saints agricultural colonies created a trade area in the Benson sub-basin in the Upper San Pedro Valley, which persists to the present. A traveler from Boston described Benson's prosperous main street as bustling, filled with cowboys, miners, railroad men, Mexicans, Americans, and Chinese.

Today Benson remains a rail terminal for the area and has just over 5,000 residents who call the city their home.  Rosemont Copper Project Mine in the area has a rare combination of copper, molybdenum, silver, and gold in what is one of the largest unmined surface deposits in the country. Tours are available at the mine from 9:00 a.m. until noon each Wednesday and Saturday.  Children under the age of 12 are not permitted on the mine tour. The tour is free but advanced reservations are recommended.  Click here to reserve your space.

Things to Do

The areas surrounding Benson offer numerous opportunities for outdoor recreation:

  • The Coronado National Forest and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area provide areas for hiking, camping, and picnicking.

  • Kartchner Caverns State Park, which opened November 12, 1999, allows the public access to a spectacular, world -class cave that was only recently discovered.

  • The Overland Stagecoach Days celebration is held annually, each October.

  • There are 21 RV parks in and around Benson with 1647 spaces as well as 2 campgrounds within the city and numerous camping opportunities in the surrounding area.

Getting There

Benson is a city in Cochise County, 45 miles east- southeast of Tucson and about 160 miles from Phoenix on Interstate 10, East.

To plan your trip to Benson, call a AAA Travel professional toll-free 888-870-9408 or stop by your local AAA office.

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Douglas

About Douglas

The Douglas area was first settled by the Spanish in the 18th century. Presidio de San Bernardino (San Bernardino Fort) was established in 1776 and abandoned in 1780. It was located a few miles east of present day Douglas. The United States Army established Camp San Bernardino in the latter half of the 19th century near the presidio and in 1910 Camp Douglas was built next to the town.

Douglas was founded as an American smelter town, to treat the copper ores of nearby Bisbee, Arizona. The town is named after mining pioneer Dr. James Douglas, and was incorporated in 1905. Two copper smelters operated at the site. The Calumet and Arizona Company Smelter was built in 1902. The Copper Queen operated in Douglas from 1904 until 1931, when the Phelps Dodge Corporation purchased the Calumet and Arizona Company and took over their smelter. The Calumet and Arizona smelter then became the Douglas Reduction Works. Douglas was the site of the Phelps-Dodge Corporation Douglas Reduction Works until its closure in 1987. The smoke stacks of the smelter were not taken down until January 13, 1991.

Some interesting historical facts about Douglas

  • The town was a site of the Arizona Copper Mine Strike of 1983.

  • The "Cowboys Home Saloon" was the location of the fatal shooting of bar owner Lorenzo "Lon" Bass. Arizona Ranger William W. Webb shot Lon on February 8, 1903.

  • In 1916, the Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa threatened to attack Douglas, believing Americans responsible for his defeat at the Second Battle of Agua Prieta.

Things to Do

Hotel Gadsden Cochise County boasts a number of wonderful scenic and historic sites and Douglas is no exception. Douglas is home to the Hotel Gadsden, one of the southwest’s most famous hotels, dating to 1907. After a devastating fire in 1918, the hotel was rebuilt and maintains the much of the same charm of the early days. The hotel features a magnificent marble columned lobby and a Tiffany stained glass window.

The Grand Theater This majestic Beaux Arts-style theater was once considered the grand dame in the Southwest and played host to vaudeville acts and performances by the likes of Ginger Rogers, Al Jolson, and the some of the period’s finest musicians and entertainers. Closed to the public in the late 1950s, the theatre has suffered significant damage, including a collapsed roof. Now, a painstaking renovation is in progress, with the goal of restoring the city’s gem to its former glory. Stand in front and imagine the glory days of vaudeville and film in this small town, which was once home to 13 movie theatres.

Aviation History Douglas boasts the first international airport in the U.S. During WWII, pilots were trained at the Bisbee/Douglas Airfield for future combat missions. Amelia Earhardt was one of many famous aviators to fly to Douglas during a cross-country trip. The city’s air museum houses a collection of aeronautical photos, a custom airplane, and other aviation memorabilia.

San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge Located 17 miles east of Douglas in a wide valley, is a 2,309 acre wildlife refuge that is open to birdwatching, photography, and hiking, as well as dove, quail and cottontail rabbit hunting in season. More than 283 species are represented in the aquatic and riparian habitats of the San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge.

Copper Mining From its early days until 1987, Douglas was linked inextricably to copper. The city was once home to two copper smelter companies. An investment group provided the initial startup capital for the burgeoning city's needs, including electricity, telephone and water service. The Phelps Dodge company store building, which is no longer a mercantile, is located on 10th & G Avenue and remnants of the its interior are still visible, including a great wooden staircase.

Getting There

Douglas, Arizona is in the County of Cochise situated on the US / Mexican border adjacent to the Mexican city of Agua Prieta. It is located 118 miles southeast of Tucson.

To plan your trip to Douglas, call a AAA Travel professional toll-free 888-870-9408 or stop by your local AAA office.

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