Old Hands

a grizzled old cowboy with a large black hat and similarly outdated garb, in black and white, walks down the street

Photograph by Tom Peck


Two characters, one barely thirty and the other the epitome of history still living, share a table on the red brick porch of the Copper Queen Hotel.

I’m the younger of the two, drinking a beer and smoking away the afternoon. The old man sitting across from me holds two leather gloves in his right hand, a shot of whiskey in his left. He nurses the drink, and his eyes never stray. They’re deep, permeating the air above the table and always staring right back into mine.

“Men have killed one another in these streets,” he tells me. His name is Michael and he offers historic tours of Old Bisbee, Arizona. He’s dressed head to toe in full cowboy regalia. A tall hat that casts shade down over his face, allowing the sun’s rays only a moment or two on his scruffy chin occasionally. His thick mustache bristles like a horse brush cleaning flies from his words. “There was very little law back in the days when Bisbee was what it was meant to be, a mining town, the frontier.” A long brown duster covers his black vest, a pocket watch hanging near his stomach. It’s nearly 100 degrees today but his wardrobe never wavers.

“Bisbee was the largest city in the US, between St. Louis and San Francisco, mind you. 9,000 people kept these streets actively working every day. The miners who came here looking for work did so with nothing when they arrived, and when they were eventually shipped out by the company who owned the mines, they left just as they came. It was all hard work for them, they didn’t live in the houses down here in town; that was reserved for the bankers and saloon owners and business people. They lived in caves and shacks made of found wood or tin sheets. They literally had it worse, as far as accommodations, than what many homeless people do today. They were homeless. But this was a different time. Simpler, but more complicated, complex indeed. When a man angered another man, one of them often ended up dead. Law was absent, or when it wasn’t, it was lenient, likely corrupt beyond what we think of as corruption in government today.”

Tourists in t-shirts and shorts walk by, their only cares to spend money and walk the streets and shops the town has to offer today, maybe get drunk later tonight and do it all over again before returning to Tucson or wherever in the country they’ve come from and will return in a weekend’s time.

“The miners, well it was rumored at least, they planned to form a union. So business was handled, and the company which owned the mines, which was Phelps Dodge, simply shipped them all out of town. Similar thing happened up in Jerome,” another small mining town in north central Arizona. “What we consider hardship today would have been kingship then.” He looked down at his drink, then directly back into me.

“How do you manage to just ship a thousand people?” I ask, intrigued by everything about this old man who looks as though he may have actually been there himself.

“This is a company that is nearly all-powerful in the area, in the time. They owned Tombstone, and yes while that town gets to go down in history mostly due to the movies, Bisbee is where things were actually happening. Phelps Dodge came in and took over, they hijacked the telegraph system, owned the hotel, the main store, the hospital; they were just significantly more than the miners. There were 1300 some miners, well Phelps Dodge had 2000 men on their side. This was a company that operated not just here in the US, but all the way down into South America, into Chile. So imagine that type of a power against these men who are living in caves. It’s not hard to put that together. It was the end of Bisbee as it had been, the town never recovered.”

“Until the hippies came in the 70’s, right?” I had been told by others that the Bisbee of today was part of a sort of gentrification process that happened back then.

“Yes,” he takes a sip and nods his head. “By the 50’s Bisbee was already a shadow of what it used to be. And by the 70’s, the mining operations had pulled out, nobody lived here, housing prices were as low as the population, you could say.” He sat his gloves on the table and rubbed his nose with his finger. “Artists and musicians and commune types moved in. They wanted a cheap place to call home, and this was it. Over the next decade, up into the 90’s, they turned the place around. This hotel, though, back then, this million dollar business today, it was sold for $1.00. And they had trouble finding a buyer even at that price.”

“Were you a part of that all, is that when you came to town?”

He smiled and shook his head, “I was hanging with Gram Parson before that all happened. The Flying Burrito Brothers. We were all over the place.” I wanted to ask him more about that, how a member of a country star’s entourage ended up being a cowboy tour guide. How he came across all of this information, what more he could tell me. I would have picked his brain until it scabbed over, but he finished his drink and shook my hand, stood up and went on his way.

Michael can be found sitting in front of the Bisbee Grille most days. I didn’t end up having the pleasure of taking one of his tours, indeed I only discovered he was a walking tour guide days after our conversation. If you’d like to hear the rest of the story, I can nothing short of highly suggest that you find an old man who wears a complete cowboy’s outfit as though it was as natural as sandals on the beach and ask him if he’d favor you with a tour.

Two photographs of Bisbee's brewery gulch, the left as it is in 2012, the right from some time in the early 1900s. Both are very similar as far as building structures go.
Left, Bisbee today. Right, 1890's Bisbee. I can say I've never seen the street as empty as on the left, nor as packed as the right.