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Visiting Coronado Memorial

And the Historic Town of Bisbee
By George Stocking - August 3rd, 2000

The historical clash of American Indian, European and Mexican cultures, combined with a seemingly timeless topography make southeastern Arizona perpetually interesting, and I find myself returning on this Saturday morning for yet another in series of weekend visits that began more than 22 years ago.

Today, my journey takes me to Coronado National Memorial; tomorrow I will parallel the border and conclude my tour at the "Queen of the Copper Camps," the city of Bisbee. As I round a soft, wheat colored curve in the rolling foothills of the Eastern Huachuca Mountains, I take in the panorama before me. White prickly poppies sporadically break the plane of the foot-high grass that sweeps across the steppes to the abrupt escarpment of the mountains. Ancient oaks form huge canopies as they rest their curved boughs on the ground.

I stop at the large sign telling me I have entered the National Memorial and marvel at the towering presence of Montezuma Peak as it holds court over the surrounding country.

Unlike national monuments and parks, which protect tangible buildings or landmarks, the Coronado National Memorial commemorates an event. Inside the visitor center, a collection of interpretive materials is highlighted by a nine-minute documentary video celebrating the Spanish exploration of the New World.

It especially details the journey of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who came to the North America in 1540 in search of gold.

Historians believe Coronado and his group of soldiers and clergy traveled northward through the San Pedro River valley in his fruitless quest for the seven cities of gold.

A short trail leads from the visitor center to a natural limestone cavern called the Coronado Cave. The cavern has also been called Montezuma's cave, Montezuma's treasure vault, and Geronimo's cave; it is rumored that the famed Apache chieftain hid inside the cave following some of his frequent raids into Mexico.

The cave extends some 600 feet into the mountainside and is, on average, 20 feet. tall It was heavily vandalized by past generations of visitors who broke off most of the stalagmites and stalactites as souvenirs.

Leaving the cave, I return to the visitor center and resume the journey toward Montezuma Pass in my truck.

The road zigzags up from the sycamore lined wash of Montezuma Canyon through thick oaks, affording spectacular vistas of San Jose peak to the east and the San Rafael valley to the west.

The literature I picked up at the visitor center claims that the San Pedro Valley has changed little during the 450 years since Coronado set foot here. I gaze down and try to imagine a party of armored Spaniards straggling up the valley in the summer heat.

The rest of the afternoon slips away quickly as I climb the short Coronado Peak Trail, then browse along the Crest Trail for several miles. As sunset approaches, I leave the Memorial and descend into the Coronado National Forest to find a campsite for the evening.

The next morning finds me driving east into a rising sun. Yuccas flourish in the grass along the roadside and are boasting large, white flowers on their tall stalks.

Driving across the San Pedro River (now nearly dry) I am reminded of numerous historical yarns about this legendary waterway. It was 30 miles north of here that the Mormon Regiment fought the now infamous "battle of the bulls" in 1846. No humans were killed, although the bulls got the better of several soldiers and a wagon. Consequently, an estimated 20 bulls perished from multiple musket ball wounds.

During the 19th century, towns such as Millville, Charleston and Emory City emerged along the river as stamp mills for the processing of ore from the Tombstone silver mines; Fairbanks was the railroad connection for the entire southeast section of the territory. These boom towns were populated by opportunists, gamblers and roughnecks of all sorts, lawless men whose legendary escapades still live on today.

The West was truly wild in those days, and the history of Bisbee is closely intertwined with that of Tombstone and Fairbanks.

In 1877, while searching for Apache Indians, an Army scout discovered copper ore in the Mule mountains. Since he already had a day job, he grubstaked Earl Warren to work the now famous Copper Queen claim. But the silver bonanza in the Tombstone Mountains the same year overshadowed the copper strike at Bisbee.

Bisbee was constructed at the confluence of Brewery Gulch and Tombstone Canyon. Due to a lack of space, houses were built on the side of canyon cliffs, buttressed by retaining walls and accessed by long flights of wooden stairs.

Historical accounts of Bisbee's early days state that after a night at the bawdy bars and brothels on Brewery gulch, the local constabulary gave a drunken miner on his way home three chances to navigate the stairs without falling. After his third tumble he was considered "officially" drunk and taken to the tank.

It was said that a man could sit on his front porch and easily spit into his neighbor's chimney. As I drive into town, looking up at the houses perched precariously on the hillsides, I realize that statement is not much exaggerated.

At the turn of the century Bisbee was a squalid and filthy town, prone to floods and fires, perpetually stinking of sulfur fumes from the smelter.

Like most boom towns, buildings were hastily constructed of wood and other combustible materials. In many vintage photographs of the city, large water barrels are seen evenly spaced on the tops of many buildings. If the building caught fire the owner would shoot holes in the bottom of the barrels to start the water flowing, effectively turning on one of the first sprinkler systems.

Encouraged by the relative stability of copper production, land owners began to rebuild with brick and stone following the devastating fire of 1908, and the Bisbee that we see today began to take shape.

Bisbee's boom was well documented in photographs, many of which can be viewed in the Mining and Historical Museum on Main Street. I am always amazed at the remarkable resemblance of the town to the way it looked 80 years ago.

Late in the afternoon, I hike up OK street to look at the old town in the fading light. Unlike Tombstone, Bisbee's sister community to the north, this town doesn't survive by hyping the past and peddling it to eager tourists. As the lights come on in the gulch below me, I see that Bisbee has preserved its past with confidence and grace.

Trip Planner

Distance from Phoenix: Bisbee is about 210 miles from Phoenix; Coronado National Memorial is about the same distance.

Getting there: From Phoenix (to get to Bisbee) take I-10 south and turn south on highway 80 toward Tombstone. For the Coronado National Memorial, turn south from I-10 onto Highway 90. Continue south on 90, which will become Highway 92, until you see the sign for the Memorial. Follow Highway 92 east to reach Bisbee from the Memorial.

Season: Year-round. The memorial lies at 5,200 feet in elevation; Montezuma Pass is at 6,575 feet. During the summer, temperatures can reach the high 90s. In the winter, daytime temps can range from the mid 30s to the 60s. Bisbee's elevation is about 5,700 feet and boasts the best year-round temperatures of any place in the world.

Camping: Camping is not available in the Coronado Memorial. Go down the western side of Montezuma Pass into the Coronado National Forest for primitive camping. The closest full service campground is at Parker Lake, about 18 miles from the Pass.

Additional Information: Coronado National Memorial write to 4101 E. Montezuma Rd., Hereford, AZ 85616. For Bisbee, call the Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-561-9745 or 1-520-432-5421


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