When Bisbee visitors ask directions to just about anyplace, the first thing they hear is “did you drive by the pit?” That big hole in the ground is hard to miss and has been the geographical anchor of Bisbee for over 60 years. Some people think the pit got its name from the color of the rock that rises up its sides. Not true. It was named for Harrison M. Lavender, the Phelps Dodge mining engineer most responsible for its preliminary planning and development. He died in March, 1951 just before stripping operations commenced in April. A year later, the pit took his name.
It took a few years of hard work before any ore could be mined. There were three communities on the mountain, Upper Lowell, Johnson Addition and Jiggerville. To start, 191 houses and businesses were moved or torn down; 3200 feet of U.S. Highway 80 were relocated and the Southern Pacific railroad line serving Lowell and Bisbee was abandoned. Approximately 46 million tons of barren capping material, called overburden had to be dug out and $25 million dollars expended before an ounce of copper was produced.
There had been a pit in Bisbee before. The south face of Sacramento Hill was developed into the Sacramento Pit in the early years of the 20th century. Mining there ceased when the ore was exhausted and the pit could not be expanded into adjoining areas. The excavation sat mostly out of sight as work shifted to the underground operation. All that changed when the Korean War came along. Technology had advanced and as the price of copper rose to meet demand, the ore body that lay deep beneath the mountain between Bisbee and Lowell came into play. Lavender Pit was born.
Stripping operations, begun in 1951, continued for three years as waste was moved to dumps, now called stockpiles, that grew up in open spaces around the area. A 12,000 ton per day concentrator was built on the mountainside above the pit site and a conveyor belt straddled the highway to lift ore from the primary crusher on the pit floor to the mill for further processing. In some areas, as much as 350 feet of waste material was removed before ore was exposed.
In July 1954 the concentrator began operations when the first copper ore was taken out of the 300 acre pit. The process involved mining along level areas around the perimeter called benches that rose in 50-foot increments. Rotary drills with 12-inch bits bored holes 60 feet deep for a 1200 lb. per hole powder charge. Blasting took place every afternoon at 2:55 pm and could be felt all over town. In the early years, highway traffic was stopped in both directions to prevent possible damage from stray rock let loose by the blast. One blast normally broke about 75,000 tons of rock and sometimes large boulders were left that had to be drilled and blasted a second time so they could be dug out.
Once the ore or waste was exposed, electric shovels moved in with 6-9 cubic yard dipper capacities. They loaded material into 65 ton trucks for transport to either the primary crusher or the dump. Each shovel needed an average of 8 trucks to prevent loading delays. A dispatcher sitting high up on Sacramento Hill kept things moving smoothly. In the mining business, time really is money.
Pit operations rarely stopped. Working in three shifts seven days a week miners removed rock and ore and over twenty years widened and deepened the hole. The dumps that grew up south and east of the pit became as large as mountains. Eventually, the Lavender Pit got big enough to break into and swallow the old Sacramento Pit and began to creep along Slag Dump Hill toward old Bisbee. The ore taken out was processed into a concentrate of copper slurry that was dried and hauled by train to the smelter twenty-five miles down the road in Douglas. After further reduction by smelting, copper ingots moved on to the refinery in El Paso. What started out as rock and earth in a large hole in Bisbee became the wire, appliances, car parts and space capsules that we all now take for granted.
When Lavender Pit was conceived, engineers and geologists predicted a life of about 25 years based on known copper reserves. They weren’t far off. Eventually, the ore was exhausted and as copper prices fell in the 1970’s the cost of extraction made the pit unprofitable. On December 14, 1975, operations ceased. Some miners moved on, others retired and Bisbee’s most iconic mining symbol fell silent. The concentrator was torn down, the conveyor belt removed and over the years nature began to reclaim the area where once a mountain stood.
But the pit is still there. It is still the most visible reminder of why Bisbee was called the Queen of the Copper Camps. Today you can stop at the observation point and learn about how it all came to be and marvel at what technology can achieve. In this environmentally conscious time, opinions about open pit mining vary. Looking over into the vast and now silent hole that was once a mountain, it is easy to understand why we are conflicted. But it is a breathtaking sight. And for many who remember the constant hum of machinery and the sound of rock being moved and noises in the night that represented the life of our town and its economy, it is a reminder of the very thing that made Bisbee.