Founded as a mining town in 1880, Bisbee, Arizona has been the county seat of Cochise County since 1929, when the seat was moved from Tombstone. Named after mine financier Judge DeWitt Bisbee, the town has a long and interesting history that began in 1877, when a detachment of US army scouts and cavalry was sent to find and root out renegade Apaches operating in the nearby Mule Mountains.
The detachment didn’t find any Apache warriors. Instead, they found the telltale signs of lead, copper, and silver all over the mountains. The news soon spread with the help of an opportunistic, hard-drinking prospector named George Warren who duped the soldiers into entrusting him with their discovery, and a claim was staked (Karma would catch up to George Warren several years later, when, in 1880, he lost the entirety of his share of the enormously lucrative Copper Queen Mine after drunkenly wagering it on himself in a footrace against a horse.) That claim would attract prospectors and speculators from all over the country, including the town’s namesake, Judge DeWitt Bisbee, who provided the financial backing for the famous Copper Queen Mine, a site that survives to this day as a living museum.
The early predictions of mineral wealth were, if anything, too conservative. Prospectors found vein after vein of valuable ore buried deep in the Mule Mountains, and the city boomed as ton upon ton of extraordinarily pure ore was pulled out of the ground. By the dawn of the 20th century, Bisbee was the largest town between St. Louis, Missouri, and San Francisco, and the home of some of the most lucrative mines in the world. That success brought people from every corner of the globe and walk of life, and soon, Bisbee was the most cosmopolitan city in the South-West. An oasis of culture, the city was the site of a whole range of Arizona firsts: first ballpark, first library, and first golf course (an impressive feat of engineering for the first years of the 20th century, given that Bisbee is situated on the western edge of the Chihuahuan Desert,) all of which still stand, monuments to the city’s boom-town days.
Along with success and enormous population growth came vice, and Bisbee was the home of one of the largest and most vibrant entertainment districts in the west, the notorious Brewery Gulch. Home to over 50 saloons at the peak of the town’s growth, Brewery Gulch was a thriving avenue of brothels and rowdy bars, a living reminder of the town’s former life as a rough and tumble mining camp. Some of those saloons survive to this day (albeit in slightly tamer form) and are open for business to those looking to relive a bit of Bisbee’s rustic and rugged past.
Successful as it was, Bisbee was not free from greed and iniquity. The same mines that were the lifeblood of the city gave rise to a series of brutal labor disputes, the most infamous of which would profoundly alter public policy not just in Arizona, but throughout the entire nation. The fallout from the so-called “Brisbee Deportation” would reach the highest echelons of the American government, capturing the attention of President Woodrow Wilson himself.
The incident that would come to be known as the Brisbee Deportation began in 1917, when the city’s miners furnished a list of demands to the city’s three main mining firms; Phelps Dodge, the Calumet and Arizona Co., and the Shattuck Arizona Co. Of the three, Phelps Dodge was by far the largest, owning the lucrative Copper Queen Mine, as well as the city’s only department store, the hospital, the city’s largest hotel, the city library, and even the town newspaper. The miners’ demands included an end to physical strip searches (conducted at the end of every shift to ensure that they weren’t smuggling out valuable ore), basic safety changes (such as not detonating explosives while the miners were inside the mine), and a shift from a payment system that renumerated the workers based on quantity and quality of ore mined (which was largely out of their control) to a flat rate of $6.00 a day. If the demands weren’t met, the miners would strike.
The mining firms flatly refused all of the demands.
On June 26, 1917, the strike was called. Over 3000 miners walked off, leaving the mines staffed by less than a quarter of the normal workforce. The mining firms immediately sent a message to the Governor of Arizona, Thomas Edward Campbell, requesting that a detachment of either state militia or federal troops be sent to break the nonviolent strike. Occurring as it did during the height of America’s involvement in the First World War, the mining firms’ representatives suggested that the strike was In fact an Axis plot to halt the acquisition of vital war material, an act of sabotage that required an immediate federal response.
Both President Wilson declined to send the military in to break the peaceful strike, electing instead to send the state’s first Governor and noted labor ally, George W. P. Hunt, to negotiate a mutually agreeable end to the demonstration.
Dissatisfied with this arrangement, the president of Phelps Dodge, Walter S. Douglas, a self avowed union breaker, gathered together a group of mining executives, along with the county sheriff and executives of the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad, and conspired to break the strike by force, then kidnap and deport from the state any man that refused to work in the mines, renounce the miners union, or who was a noted member of a labor organization or involved in the organization of the strike.
To accomplish this task, the mining firms formed a posse, deputized by the county sheriff and composed of over 2,200 men from the surrounding area. The posse moved into the town just before dawn on July 12, 1917, carrying firearms and lists of known strikers. The armed deputies of the posse moved through town, seizing control of telegraph stations and telephones to keep news of the incident from leaking out. They detained journalists and soon had a stranglehold on the city, preventing the world at large from learning of the deportation until the act was done.
The posse pulled men from their homes, and robbed and looted the local shops, throwing the town grocer in with the striking miners. As they were arrested, the men of the town were marched at gunpoint to the ballpark, where they were placed under guard by an automobile-mounted machine gun. Those who weren’t recorded union members were given an ultimatum: get back in the mine, or leave the state.
The men who refused, or who were avowed union members or strike organizers were again lead out at gunpoint, this time to waiting cattle cars furnished by the mining firms’ friends at the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad. Shoved into cars covered ankle-deep in manure, the nearly 1300 men were told that they’d be lynched if they ever returned to Brisbee. The train left at just past 11 AM, stopping briefly to take on supplies at a station 10 miles outside of town, where hundreds of armed men and two machine guns stood watch over the unwilling passengers, ensuring that escape was impossible.
The train would travel east for nearly 16 hours, an almost 200 mile journey through scorching desert heat without food or water, arriving and being refused at several stops before finally being allowed to unload in Hermanas, New Mexico. The striking miners were now far from home, in a strange state, all of them without a cent to their name.
The expulsion resulted in a minor humanitarian disaster for New Mexico, as the state authorities scrambled to find acceptable accommodations for close to 1300 men. A near panicked message to President Wilson brought relief in the form of a US Army escort to Columbus, New Mexico, where the miners were housed in a federal tent city set up to hold Mexican refugees.
The mining firms’ posse would rule the town of Brisbee with an iron fist for the next four months, arresting and deporting hundreds more citizens. Despite the efforts of President Wilson and the federal government, no one involved with the Brisbee Deportation was ever successfully prosecuted, and only a bare handful of deportees ever returned home or received compensation from the mining firms. The kidnapped men largely made do as best they could, and faded into history.
While a terrible miscarriage of justice, the Brisbee Deportation was a watershed moment for the city, Cochise County, and the nation as a whole. The incident sparked widespread debate over the role of private citizens and state government in policing labor, and the right of the federal government to interfere with a state’s ability to decide who moves through its borders, a dispute that would eventually find its way to the Supreme Court of the United States.
While mass deportations would happen again in the United States, they would all be at the behest of the federal government. Never again would a state kidnap and displace citizens without due process on behalf of a private organization. The Brisbee Deportation would remain a singular and extraordinary event in the history of American labor disputes, and Brisbee itself would eventually recover. Though the mines would dry up by the mid-20th century, the city remains a vibrant tourist town with an interesting history and a unique heritage. Never a huge city, and smaller now than it was at its peak, Brisbee has nonetheless had a huge influence on Arizona and the nation, and its small size belies a fascinating Old West pedigree and lively history that stretches far longer than you’d expect from the shadow of what was once a tiny desert mining camp.