Debunking a Bisbee Urban Legend

Bisbee | Nina Schulz

One of my favorite duties at Arizona Highways is authoring our annual look at some of Arizona's most iconic landmarks. The Historic Places feature has appeared in the magazine's February issue each of the past four years. This year, one of our five featured locations was Bisbee's Copper Queen Hotel.

In researching the history of the Copper Queen and the iconic mining town of Bisbee, I came across a statement I hadn't heard before: that Bisbee, at the height of its mining heyday, was the largest U.S. city between St. Louis and San Francisco. It seemed hard to believe, so I verified it with multiple reputable sources, including the Copper Queen, the Bisbee Visitor Center and even the Arizona Office of Tourism. It seemed solid, and a quick look through our archives indicated we'd reported it several times in the past.

As magazine subscribers and Bisbee residents Mike and Judy Anderson pointed out, though, I'd fallen victim to an urban legend so pervasive that it's wormed its way into the historical record:

Bisbee is referred to in the article as at one time being "America's largest community between St. Louis and San Francisco, with a population of more than 20,000 in the early 1900s." That statement is simply not accurate. In 1910, when Bisbee's population was near or at its peak, Denver, CO, both Kansas City, MO and Kansas City, KS, San Antonio, TX, Houston, TX, Dallas, TX, Fort Worth, TX, El Paso, TX, Salt Lake City, UT and St. Joseph, MO all had populations much larger than Bisbee's.

A quick check of U.S. Census Bureau data reveals that, indeed, the cities the Andersons mentioned were much more populous than Bisbee around that time. Denver, for example, had a population of about 213,000 in 1910, and even in 1880, it was around 35,000. It's possible that many mine industry employees lived in the Bisbee area but were not counted in the censuses. But it's unlikely that there were enough such people to overtake Denver, Salt Lake City or some of those other cities.

To learn more about this claim, I contacted Annie Graeme Larkin, the curator at the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum. Larkin said she thinks the myth has endured because of the unique contrast between the city's past and its present. "We were one of the most important mining camps in the West, and undoubtedly a factor in Arizona achieving statehood," she said. But the closure of the Copper Queen Mine in the mid-1970s changed everything.

"The city saw longtime families moving and businesses closing, and the best-paying jobs dried up," Larkin said. "So I think perhaps the statement thrived in the past two to three decades to illustrate that we were no ordinary mining camp. While we might be viewed as a small, quiet city now, the community was a major component in Arizona's success during its formative years — something one who visited Bisbee in 1985 would not be able to readily see."

There's no doubt the legend of Bisbee as one of the West's biggest cities is a fun story. But readers of Arizona's magazine of record deserve a higher standard. So I'll close by saying that we regret the error — and as much as we love the Bisbee Breakfast Club, the Copper City Inn and the other establishments in the great city of Bisbee, this is an error we won't make again.

— Noah Austin, Associate Editor

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information regarding the origin of the Bisbee population myth. That information has been deleted.

Comments

Back in the 70's I did some trading in turquoise jewelry and had several beautiful pieces that were said to be Bisbee Blue but that the turquoise from Bisbee was not often available because there was only a limited amount mined in an effort to maintain it's price and that the mine was closed at all other times. Is this another urban legend? As I said, the pieces I had were very beautiful and It would be nice to see more if it were available.

A deceased friend of my husband used to work in the mine and had access to all the turquoise he could use. He use turquoise in various fixtures throughout his home. (can't remember the name). After the mine closed he would come to the National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, KY and set up a booth to sell turquoise jewelry he made.

While growing up there, what the 'old timers' told me was that Bisbee had been the wealthiest town between The Mississippi and the Shore of the Pacific. The name I can recall of an Elderly who told me this is Mrs Browder (sp?) who ran the "Variety Store" in Warren.

I was born & raised in Bisbee & moved with my family to New Mexico before high school; my husband & I vacationed in Arizona in the late 1990's. My husband bought me ear rings of Bisbee Blue turquiose from "Bisbee Bob's store; beautiful light blue that I still wear & love.

Living near Cripple Creek, CO and we were also told that the gold mining near Victor and Cripple Creek made our area around Colorado Springs the wealthiest area in the country around that same timeframe. It would be an interesting subject to research.

The story of Julia Lowell working as a prostitute out of the Copper Queen Hotel is also an urban legend. This never happened, nor did she exist. The story of Julia Lowell was made up for a Murder Mystery dinner at the Copper Queen Hotel about a decade or so ago.

I don't know the story of Julia Lowell, but it sounds like it could be an adaptation of the Julia Bulette story from the mining town of Virginia City, Nevada. Her story, although greatly embellished posthumously, was that of a prostitute of very modest means who was brutally murdered in her room by an unknown assailant. Her story achieved legendary status in Comstock lore, however, including an episode in the TV series "Bonanza," in which she was portrayed as a wealthy socialite madam -- a far cry from reality.

The original story that I heard was that Bisbee was the largest city on the Southern Pacific Railroad between Kansas City and Los Angeles. Whether true or not, it's at least more credible than the largest city in that area - period.

Add new comment