Welcome to The Copper Chronicle

Bisbee’s volunteer-powered, listener-supported community radio station KBRP is pleased to announce the launch of The Copper Chronicle.

The launch of The Copper Chronicle, hosted by Bisbee native Charles Bethea, reveals a distinctive narrative created through extensive research in the library of the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum. Mr. Bethea, a member of the Museum’s governing board of directors who has recently returned to his hometown after a successful arts administration career, conjures a sound that is reminiscent of storytellers familiar to listeners of public and community radio.

Disease, Epidemics, Sewers and Medicine

On January 9, 1902, Bisbee, Arizona Territory, became incorporated by order of the Cochise County Board of Supervisors. A city council was appointed including some well-known citizens: Mssrs. Shattuck, Shearer, Angius, Scott, Letson and Gosenhofer, though Shearer and Gosenhofer declined the honor. They probably knew what the council was facing. One of the replacements, James Muirhead was elected mayor. The Bisbee Daily Review had been pushing for incorporation because of Bisbee’s deplorable sanitary conditions. The paper editorialized for incorporation in hopes, as it stated, “of securing a good and substantial supply of water.”

That January, Bisbee’s 8,000 residents were living in what amounted to a sewer—actually a sewer and a trash pit. Garbage was thrown out back doors of restaurants on both sides of Main Street and dead carcasses—burros, horses, cats, dogs—littered the roadways. Open cesspools were common in residential areas. Hordes of flies and mosquitoes invaded turning the summer months into seasons of epidemics. A typhoid outbreak in 1896 prompted a study by Mr. F.W. Farquhar of New York. What he discovered must have repulsed and terrified most Bisbee residents. Two private suppliers, Mr. Mason and Mr. Angens delivered water to townsfolk who did not have their own wells. Farquhar discovered that Mason’s wells, located up Tombstone Canyon, were surrounded by or downhill from many stables and privies, some as close as 100 feet. Angens owned two wells, one about 20 feet below the cemetery on Brewery Gulch, today’s City Park; and the other across from Castle Rock, known as the “old company well”. Both were also close to the numerous privies that dotted the landscape.

Those privies were pretty useless. The report noted that what was supposed to go into the privies was more often running out of them, and slops and garbage were “thrown anywhere that may involve the least exertion to get it out doors.” The town garbage wagon was its own disaster, dripping its liquid contents along its route. And even though the better homes in the district had plumbing, their waste pipes emptied onto roads and into gullies that threatened neighboring houses and added to the smelly mess that often ran down the streets. Early photographs of Brewery Gulch confirm that just trying to cross the road could be hazardous to your boots let alone your health. Farquhar noted that his November report came after heavy rains the previous month had washed away or scattered the filth. We can only imagine what it was like during the dry months of mid spring or early summer.

Disease was ever present and often erupted into epidemics threatening the populace. Annie Cox, who wrote “A History of Bisbee 1877-1937” reported that between 1888 and 1890, hundreds of people had died of typhoid fever before the source of the disease could be discovered. Miners taken ill lay in cots along Main Street or Brewery Gulch. In 1891, the Tombstone Prospector reported 800 cases requiring doctors’ care over one ten week period. It got so bad that the Bisbee Dramatic Club presented a play called “Dot, the Miner’s Daughter” as a benefit for the cemetery fund. One positive result was the creation of a medical department by the Copper Queen Company and the hiring of a doctor, Thomas Darlington. Despite continuing battles against dangerous diseases, typhoid, typhus, cholera and smallpox all took a toll on the town each year.

By 1902 when Bisbee incorporated, clean water, sanitation and disease control were high on the list of things the new council faced. However, the city fathers’ first ordinance addressed what must have been, to them, a more urgent matter. It banned all women from saloons. That critical issue taken care of, the council appointed a committee to look into the sanitary conditions of the town. By January 29, the council had identified a location for a “pest house” or quarantine hospital. It would be in the hills near Winwood. Other ordinances followed ordering the clean up of streets and alleys, forbidding livestock to run loose and authorizing a fleet of clean up wagons. In February, the leaders ordered that yellow flags be posted on every residence reporting a case of smallpox. Also, ordinances proclaimed that dead bodies could not remain unburied longer than 4 to 6 days and those who died of a contagious disease had to be buried within 24 hours. But sickness and poor sanitation persisted. By 1903, in addition to the pest house, both the Copper Queen and Calumet and Arizona companies had established hospitals. In 1905 and 06, more than 150 cases of typhoid were reported each year and smallpox was serious enough that schools were closed several times.

Bisbee fought back. In 1904 clean water from new wells in Naco began to flow eliminating a persistent source of contagion. In March 1906, an $80,000 bond issue passed for construction of a proper sewer system. The new sewers served the entire town, though construction was not completed until 1908. But a knock out blow had been struck in the form of the one-two punch of clean water and waste control. Typhoid at last was put down ending Bisbee’s long battle with the deadly disease.

Medical care improved as more doctors came to town and the sick and injured could be treated at the company hospitals. They were a far cry from Dr. Darlington’s first infirmary in the tunnels of the Glory Hole. The Copper Queen Hospital moved from Sacramento Hill to Lowell, then into a new building on the Plaza in Bisbee. When Phelps Dodge took over Calumet and Arizona, the hospital on the hill in Warren closed, eventually becoming the Hillcrest Apartments.

It is hard to say just when Bisbee changed from mining camp to city. Maybe it happened when the railroads came in or the Warren-Bisbee Trolley opened up. The official date is January 9, 1902, the day Bisbee was incorporated. But the real change may have happened when the citizens decided to fight back against squalor and disease, when they demanded clean streets and water and when the quality of their lives became as important as the minerals they mined to make life possible. That may be when Bisbee started to grow up.

Credits for This Week's Show

Charles Bethea, host; Judy Perry and Nancy Weaver, original music; and Ryan J. Bruce, producer.