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.

Felix

By the 1920’s the Phelps Dodge Corporation was well established in Bisbee with underground operations, an open pit, concentrator and extensive mechanical, engineering and administrative divisions. The smelter had been moved to Douglas years before and the old mining camp was called the Copper Queen Branch after the rich claim that really got things going. It was a well-organized business employing hundreds of men. There was an employee’s advisory committee divided into a senate and house which met monthly as well as subcommittees for each division. Workers were kept informed by the Copper Queen Bulletin published each month (quote) “in the interests of the employees of the Copper Queen Branch.” The Bulletin contained meeting minutes, announcements, accident and injury reports, financial updates and personal notes about employees and their families. It kept everyone connected and up to date.

Most bulletins featured a single employee on the cover either in recognition of an achievement or to honor service. The bulletin of May 1927 was particularly significant. It highlighted Mr. Grant H. Dowell, Manager of the branch for eleven years who would be stepping down in June. There was a respectful tribute and an article about his successor on page two. But Mr. Dowell, despite his position and honorable service was not the featured employee of the month. The headline on page six announced his name: “Felix, Sacramento, Division 7, Underground Department, “Fifteen Years Continuous Service”. Under a large picture, an article described how Felix earned this recognition.

Felix was a black cat. A mine cat. He’d been born about fifteen years earlier underground and was raised on the 1500 level of the Sacramento Division. He had lived exclusively in the dark tunnels and crosscuts and was assigned to pest control working independently of the other employees on his level. By all accounts, he was a loner in his younger years and made few close acquaintances. Leary of being caught he would climb the guides or jump from one wall plate to another always staying out of reach. The article reported that in recent years as he grew older he became more friendly and began to let his co-workers pet him—something he came to enjoy.

Felix was a hard worker. Conservative estimates indicate that during his lifetime he killed 5,292 rats—an astonishing achievement for one cat, even a Phelps Dodge cat. Mining is a dangerous business, more so for a small rat catcher who has to keep eyes and ears peeled not only for his prey but for the threats of man and machine above, below and all around. Though he was nimble, his furry body bore scars of near misses. But he never had a lost time accident, an enviable achievement for any mine employee of that era.

He came close, however. His one and only serious accident occurred when he attempted to stop a motor train by putting his tail on the track. As a result, he received slight injuries that necessitated minor surgery. This was performed on site by the powder monkey who quickly and neatly amputated the injured portion of the cat’s tail with an axe. Felix went right back to work. The photograph in the bulletin confirms the operation and his successful recovery. His abbreviated tail ends with a sharp angle rather than the graceful tapered point of most surface cats.

The article went on to report that Felix enjoyed many friends among company employees and had earned an outstanding reputation with everyone except Clara. We aren’t told who or what Clara was though she was probably another cat. Apparently she was the jealous type who took issue with her playmate on numerous occasions. As the years progressed, Felix accepted food from his fellow employees and enjoyed a quart of milk furnished each day by one of the miners.

As things turned out, the honor of employee of the month was timely. Felix was getting on in years, at least by cat standards, and he was slowing down, no doubt finding it harder and harder to hunt down the pesky rodents he was employed to keep at bay. Just two months after being named employee of the month, a small feature appeared in the July Copper Queen Bulletin. The header said, “Felix Breaks Fifteen Year Service Record When Overtaken By Grim Reaper.”

The obituary recounts his amazing life and career spent in the Sacramento Division and his fierce independence that resulted in no close friends until his declining years. Unable to maintain himself at his former occupation of capturing rats, he was forced to retire. Since his pay and benefits had always been in the bounty of his prey, he was unable to set aside anything for his last years and became friendly with his human co-workers in order to obtain food. It must have been hard for such a tough, independent soul to end up relying on others to survive. It would be like becoming a house cat, something Felix never was.

According to the report, he passed away among friends near the mule barn on the 1400 level at the Sacramento Division on June 15 at 8 p.m. The inquisition into his death revealed that his passing was due to old age. For fifteen years, Felix had been a loyal employee of Phelps Dodge. He represented all the best characteristics of his proud profession. He was reliable, careful, good at his job, and he never missed a day, or a rat. If ever anyone in the Copper Queen Branch had earned the distinction of employee of the month, it was the black mine cat.

Felix was given a final resting place in a powder box buried near the Sacramento Shaft. It was his first and last trip into the sunlight.

Credits for This Week's Show

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