Friday, February 24, 2012

Mining the Southwest for Retirement

     Did you know that it was the miners who dug out the Grand Canyon?

     Okay, not exactly. Native Americans were living along the Grand Canyon some 9000 years ago, and the Spanish rode up to take a look in the 1500s. Then several American parties explored and mapped the Grand Canyon in the 1800s, including one group that wanted to run a railroad at the bottom of the canyon along the Colorado River.

     But, the story goes, a few miners were poking and prodding along the sides of the Grand Canyon in the late 1800s. They were looking for copper, lead and zinc. They never found enough minerals to make it worth their while to haul the ore up and out of the canyon, but when a railroad line reached Flagstaff in 1882 and Eastern tourists wanted to go out to see this natural wonder, some of the miners gave up looking for riches in the rocks and went to work on the tourists instead. They improved the trails into the canyon, led mule teams down to the bottom, and hired out as guides to the tourists. One miner, Louis Boucher, opened a hotel in 1889, and another miner, William Wallace Bass, built a campground, complete with kitchen and dining facilities and special stage coach to ferry guests to and from the train station.

     I like this story, which I learned about when a few days ago I visited the Grand Canyon for the first time in my life. To me it illustrates how the West was won. First came the miners. Think California gold rush. Cripple Creek. The Comstock lode. Idaho's Silver Valley. The Black Hills. Then came the railroads. The first transcontinental railroad linked the East to California in 1869. In 1883 the Southern Pacific connected New Orleans to Los Angeles and the Northern Pacific closed the gap between Chicago and Seattle. Ten years later, in 1893, the Great Northern Railway offered another line from St. Paul to Seattle.

     Then, after the miners and the railroads, came the tourists -- to the Grand Canyon, California and a thousand places in between. And finally the retirees, to Arizona and Oregon ... and a thousand places in between.

     I was interested in the history of San Diego's Hotel Del Coronado when I went to visit last week. (We took a walk around, didn't stay there -- it costs a fortune!) The hotel opened in 1888 and has been serving tourists ever since. And I loved wandering through Old Town San Diego -- taking in a city that offered up no valuable minerals and therefore remained nothing but a small outpost until the railroad arrived in 1885. The population of San Diego County shot up from 8,600 in 1880 to 35,000 in 1890.

     When I came back to Arizona, I particularly enjoyed my visit to Bisbee, a little town (current pop. 6,000) nestled in the Mule Mountains in far southern Arizona. The town was founded after gold and copper were discovered in the late 1870s. By the early 1900s the population had grown to over 20,000, and it soon peaked at 25,000 people.

     It was 1877 when a U. S. Cavalry officer, Lieut. Jack Dunn, rode through the area on a scouting mission against the Apache. He spied some bits of interesting rocks, but couldn't do anything about them because of his duties in the army. So he struck a deal with a prospector named George Warren:  Warren would work the property with Dunn as a partner. But Warren double-crossed Dunn when he brought in some of his drinking buddies, the group staked the claim and left Dunn out in the cold.

Bisbee, AZ, in the early 1900s

     Soon prospectors were crawling all over the Mule Mountains, digging shafts into the hills, dynamiting the rocks and pulling out gold, silver and copper. Then came the corporate interests in the form of the Copper Queen Mine, which brought in big machinery and eventually started surface mining the area.

     Today, the huge Lavender pit dominates the area. The mine, now owned by mega-corporation Phelps Dodge, is currently closed, but the town itself has been restored, featuring a mining museum, several blocks of Victorian storefronts, and a few carefully restored hotels. Perfect for the tourists. And a few retired people as well, including the proprietor of our hotel who told us she and her husband came down to Bisbee from Seattle a few years ago, and turned the hotel into their retirement dream.

     I'll travel home on an airplane, not by railroad car. But I'll be taking some bits of the West back with me, in the form of a few rocks and stones, plenty of colorful memories -- and the grounds for some interesting retirement thoughts.


Stephen Hayes said...

I love visiting the Southwest but I can't be away from the ocean for long. I first saw the Grand Canyon several years ago and it lived up to its reputation.

Kay Dennison said...

Thanks for taking us along on your trip!!! So are you gonna retire there?

schmidleysscribblins, said...

Funny you should write about this now. We are reading books about the American West and how the railroads ruined it. Of course I am in a liberal arts program. Dianne

rosaria said...

Moving is such a big decision! We kept looking at places by the beach until we could afford one.

Dick Klade said...

Spot on. Although a few gypsy fur traders roamed around earlier, miners were the vanguard of those who settled the west. Glad you had an enjoyable trip.

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

Glad you had a good trip through the Southwest, Tom! We enjoy the peace and open terrain here in Arizona. It really makes sense to travel to all possible retirement destinations and see what feels right for you!

Nance said...

There was a fabulous gem show at the Natural History Museum at Balboa. I learned of California's State Gem, Benitoite, a cloudy deep blue crystal that matches my daughter's eyes. I long to get her something to work into the jewelry she makes.