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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