Moving Mountains in Arizona

The Abandoned Lavender Pit

  When we visited the old Arizona copper mining city of Bisbee recently, we marveled at a vast hole in the ground called Lavender Pit. It was named not for the color of the rocks but for Harrison Lavender, the man responsible for the mine’s development in the mid-‘50s. Terraces spiraled downward to rust-colored waste water nine hundred feet below. Where had all the missing rock gone? A whimsical thought struck. Did the miners know about Jesus’ comment that if his followers had faith, they could remove mountains?

We’d toured Bisbee’s underground Copper Queen Mine on a previous trip, but hadn’t seen this example of Arizona’s open pit copper mines. When we stared into the pit, which covers an area of some 300 acres, we noticed that its sides were much steeper than others we’d seen in the Southwest. That’s because the rock was less crumbly than in other mines. Then we drove past remnants of structures where the ore was recovered and past oddly smooth hills of broken, barren rock. In the distance we saw the town of Douglas, where trains had taken the ore for final smelting.

We returned to explore the part of old Bisbee that clings to the walls of Tombstone Canyon. A deep concrete ditch runs along the canyon to contain the frequent flash floods that used to wash away buildings every year. Some of the channel is hidden beneath the paving. Where the channel is open, narrow bridges connect picturesque small dwellings to the street.
                                                                                     The Writing Room
A sign pointed up a steep driveway: Schoolhouse B & B. We investigated and found a red-brick schoolhouse perched on a ledge just big enough for the building and a few cars. What a serendipity! It was built in 1913 as a four-classroom elementary school. Its rooms had been divided and turned into charming, high-ceilinged bedrooms with schoolhouse themes. When we saw the one labeled “The Writing Room,” we couldn’t resist and decided that’s where we’d spend the night. Besides the usual amenities, our room had antique books and typewriter, toys, and framed samples of a long-ago student’s penmanship. High-ceilinged windows     and old-fashioned transom over the door were curtained in lace. We also had comfortable armchairs where we sat to read from some of the old books and where I wrote this blog.

While waiting for breakfast the next morning, we found a compilation of stories from an old Bisbee newspaper, the Brewery Gulch Gazette, accompanied by early-day photos.

One picture, taken in the early 1900s, showed Sacramento Hill–a huge pile of low-grade copper ore–looming above the town and mine buildings. In 1917, Phelps Dodge began to develop the first pit, Sacramento, atop the peak. William C. Epler, the newspaper’s editor, wrote: “Many tons of explosives were placed in hundreds of drill holes in the top of the mountain and set off with a bang that shook old Bisbee from one end to the other. The entire top of the mountain rose into the air with a mighty heave, then settled back into place–broken into millions of tons of mineable ore. In later years the Lavender Pit and then the extension to that pit took away much more of the hill. Today there’s only a nubbin left.”

So, a mountain had once stood where the pit now gaped.

The arrival of our gourmet french toast interrupted my reading. Two other couples invited us to join them at their table, another serendipity. One man told us he’d grown up in Bisbee. Like boys everywhere in those years, he and his friends made the whole community their playground. They hung around the mines and knew all about the mine operations.

He told us that at 3:05 every school day, all students had to be in their classroom seats because that was when the blast of dynamite went off in the mine, shaking the whole town and loosening ore for the next day’s digging.

Until mining ended in the Lavender pit in 1974, shovels loaded ore onto massive trucks. The trucks carried the ore to a crusher building on the lip of the crater. After the initial crushing, the ore passed by conveyor belt up and over the highway to the concentrator.

There, according to our new friend, the ore was dumped into tanks and mixed with a solution of acid, which caused the copper to float to the top. We’d seen the remains of the tanks still perched beside the highway. Huge wipers skimmed the liquid copper. The concentrate, containing about 13 percent copper, was loaded into railroad cars and hauled to the smelter in Douglas where gold, silver, and other metals were separated from the concentrate. The gold paid for the operation of the mine. Workers also found some of the world’s finest turquoise in the broken rock.

                              Hill on the right is composed of waste rock from the mine.     

The waste rock was conveyed to the  mountain-like dumps we’d seen looming against the sky. Now we knew where the insides of Sacramento Hill had gone.

As I photographed one massive pile of waste rock, and again stared into the crater of Lavender Pit Mine, I could hardly imagine the creativity and hard work needed to conceive such a project. I’m not sure this was exactly what Jesus had in mind, but it seemed to me it took a lot of faith to move that mountain from one place to another.                                                                          

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Arizona, a Dream Deferred

Desert Dunes near Bouse, Arizona

   It seems a lifetime ago when I dreamed of moving to Arizona. Somewhere I’d come across the magazine, Arizona Highways. Full-page photographs showed glorious blue skies, vast untrammeled vistas of mountains and wildflowers and Indian ruins, cacti and wild animals and beautiful Southwest art. 

     After teaching for three years in rainy Washington State, I thought the time had come to follow my heart to Arizona. So I handed in my resignation and applied to teach in several Arizona towns. When school let out for the summer, my sister and I set out on a road trip. I planned to interview for teaching positions while we explored California and Arizona.

     But at my first interview, I was told, “We cannot hire you. You are still employed at your old school.” It turned out that my resignation had never reached the right officials. Without even seeing Arizona, we turned around and headed back to Washington.

    That September, I met Bob, a young engineer from Alaska. We married in March and went to Alaska, about as far away from Arizona as we could have gone and still be in the USA. We raised our family in Alaska and I came to love the state. I continued to drool over the photos in Arizona Highways, but God had given me many of the desires of my heart and I was happy.
   Our children grew up. When my husband got sick, we returned to Washington. Before he died, we spent a winter traveling in Arizona. I even wrote a mystery-adventure book for young people and set the story in the state. By then there were elderly parents to care for and lots of friends and loved ones I didn’t want to leave behind.
    Hank and I found each other and married. Then my daughter married a young man from Arizona. He loved Arizona as much as she loved Washington. They moved to Tucson. Some of Hank’s relatives lived in Arizona and we both had friends there. We began to spend several weeks each early spring visiting loved ones and exploring the state. We’ve been doing it for ten years now.

    It’s true that Arizona’s skies are a glorious blue…usually. You can still find untrammeled vistas, in some places. There are cacti, everywhere. There are artists and Indian ruins and lots and lots of mountains, completely unlike their counterparts in Washington. We come to Arizona at the choicest time of year, between winter’s chill and summer’s unbearable heat. In between, we read stories by J.A. Jance, Tony Hillerman, and other Arizona-based authors and experience vicariously what we are missing in person.

   It’s the best of many worlds, and a dream fulfilled. I’m not complaining at how long it took to see it realized!

Vacationing by Rail

    When we wanted to visit friends and relatives in Arizona and California this spring, we decided to try Amtrak’s Coast Starliner. I bought our tickets on-line. Daughter-in-law Lydia drove us to King Street Station in Seattle. We checked our largest bags at the gate, waited a few minutes, then walked down the platform to board our sleeping car. Our compartment was up the stairs and to the left. The aroma of fresh coffee greeted us at the top of the stairs. We stashed our carry-ons next to our facing seats, helped ourselves to free coffee at the juice-and-coffee   kiosk, and settled in to our home away from home  for the next two days.

    Our tiny compartment, about the size of our dining table at home, had privacy curtains on the door and windows. Facing cushioned seats made into a bunk for sleeping. A narrower bunk folded down from the ceiling. We had a folding table, reading lights, temperature controls, and pillows. We could move about the train and ride in the lounge cars if we wished. Meals came with our sleeping car fare. Conductors took reservations for when we wanted to eat. Each meal had a choice of two delicious entrees and a selection of deserts. There was also a snack car. If we’d wanted to save money, we could have chosen to ride in the coach cars and sleep in reclining seats.

    I’d planned to catch up on letter writing but unless the train went very slowly or stopped on a siding to wait for another train to pass, the ride wasn’t smooth enough for that. However, we could read. And the lady in the compartment across the aisle had no trouble making her knitting needles fly.

    The scenery kept us glued to the windows anyway. Much of it was new to us, since the train mostly follows a different route than the highways. Sitting high above the passing countryside gives one an expanded viewpoint. We saw some of the best of America from the train (as well as some of its seamier side in the larger cities.)

    After leaving Seattle, we followed the shores of beautiful Puget Sound. Near Tacoma, we passed beneath the twin Tacoma Narrows bridges and marveled at that feat of engineering. Later we went by huge heaps of silt, once part of volcanic Mt. St. Helens, that had been dredged from the Toutle and Columbia Rivers. We saw freighters loading in the Columbia and people fishing from small boats on Oregon’s Willamette River. We spied on houseboats anchored along sloughs and looked into the backyards of families in residential areas. Sometimes we saw homeless people huddling outside makeshift shelters.

    Now and then the train stopped to take on passengers. Then we could get off to stretch our legs and shake some kinks out. Walking the aisles is always an option for exercise…but keeping one’s balance while the train hurtles along at top speed is a little hazardous for senior citizens.
    Darkness fell while we enjoyed a leisurely gourmet dinner in the parlor car, with white linen and fresh flowers on the tables. Afterward we visited with fellow passengers in  comfortable armchairs in the adjacent lounge. When we returned to our Pullman car, a conductor had made up our beds for us. Some cars have their own little sinks, but we used one of the nearby bathrooms for washing and brushing teeth. Getting ready for bed in a 14” x 36” strip of floor space was an interesting experience, as was getting into my narrow upper bunk. I told Hank it felt like going to bed on an ironing board, but a safety net clipped to the ceiling assured me I wouldn’t fall out. The motion of the train rocked us to sleep.

    One time when the motion stopped, I leaned over to look out the window and saw snow on the ground. We were somewhere in the Cascade Mountains between Oregon and California.

    Daylight found us passing through a wide, wet area of farmland and marshes. (Later on Wikipedia I discovered that this was Suisun Marsh north of Suisun Bay, at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers…the largest marsh in California.) Incredulous, I said to Hank, “There’s a warship sitting in that field out there.” Another ship appeared, then a whole group of them lined up along the horizon. We saw water glimmering behind them and realized they were anchored along the shore of a bay…the U.S. Navy’s ghost fleet of mothballed ships in San Pablo Bay, CA. A while later we saw the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.

    This year’s El Nino, which brought us Washingtonians an unusually warm and dry winter, delivered rain in deluges to the Southwest. California’s valleys were still drenched, but burgeoning with new crops. Sleek cattle grazed on hills as emerald as any in Ireland. We glimpsed the ocean between distant mountain ridges. The train chugged through tunnels beneath the cattle on the hilltops  and eventually descended to the Pacific coast. For many miles we watched the wind blowing white manes from curling breakers. Picture-perfect beaches were mostly deserted.

    As the sun went down, we made out the silhouettes of drilling platforms far out in the Santa Barbara channel. As we ate our last meal on the train, darkness fell, turning the platforms into a line of lighted Christmas trees. We pulled into the Los Angeles Union Station around 10 pm and disembarked, along with the staff who’d been on duty for four straight days. The lady in charge of the dining car told us she works 70 hours in those four days. She looked very ready for her three-day rest. And we were ready to find our rental car and motel room, both of which we’d arranged for on-line, and then to continue our vacation.

    But that’s another story.

    Are you tired of airline hassles and freeway traffic? Maybe America’s rail lines are the way to go for your next trip.