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.

Lowell

Though Bisbee got its start in the steep wooded canyon around Castle Rock it was never really a planned community. The town followed the mines and as new claims were made, houses and businesses followed sprouting up wherever a vacant spot could be found. The Bisbee District spread south and east as more mines opened and more people moved in. The geographical center of the district was and is what became the town of Lowell.

The first businesses—two saloons and a livery stable—went up in 1900 spearheading commercial development. A year later, the Bisbee Improvement Company was formed by several movers and shakers who were pushing for Bisbee to incorporate. The group, including names like Douglas, Brophy, and Shattuck, worked to bring in needed municipal services. They built a modern ice plant along the road to Douglas. In 1901 they added a generating plant to the facility and gas was produced giving Bisbee complete utility service. In that same year, a New England merchant opened the Lowell mine and the town got its name, possibly after Lowell, Massachusetts. It didn’t take long for things to start booming in the new ‘burb.

In 1904, plans were laid out for Lowell. In 1906, the Chief Engineer for the Copper Queen Mining Co. was directed to prepare 90 lots in upper Lowell for miners and managerial staff. Buildings and businesses were springing up. In keeping with the spirit of the mining camp, there were plenty of drinking establishments and several boarding houses provided lodging for the growing work force. Also in 1906, Lowell petitioned for incorporation but only 35 property owners signed, far less than the 80 that were needed and the petition failed. Two years later, another petition was circulated, this one to annex Lowell to Bisbee.

The population grew rapidly as the mines expanded and the trolley line opened making travel throughout the district more convenient. By 1910, almost half the total population of Bisbee lived in Lowell and Warren. In 1915, Lowell boasted 5000 citizens. Five years later there were more than 6000. It was a busy town in its own right with schools, shops, churches, recreational facilities and plenty of saloons and boarding houses though these were being replaced by family homes. The Copper Queen Hospital building was moved down from Sacramento Hill when the open pit expanded. The Lowell Club House held a dance on Friday nights at 8:30 always ending in time for partiers to catch the 11:30 trolley back up the hill to Bisbee. Judge Murphy’s court in Lowell did more business than the three Bisbee police courts combined. The Lowell Justice Court was housed in a small building that still stands on Erie Street next to the railroad overcrossing.

By 1913 sidewalks were being installed, though a bid to borrow Bisbee’s cement mixer was refused and the town had to find one elsewhere. And although Lowell boasted its own soccer team that played in an organized league it did not have a post office. Busy police officers were using their own cars to patrol an area that included Warren, Jiggerville, Johnson Addition, Upper Lowell, South Bisbee, Tintown and Don Luis and a request was made for real police cars.

By 1920, plans were underway to build a train depot and good streets and sidewalks were in place. Lowell had one of Bisbee’s ten schools but it was severely overcrowded with classes spilling into nearby churches. The booming suburb also hosted the Lowell Municipal Market on summer Saturdays. Farmers from area farms brought produce to sell under a shed roof located on today’s Lowell Plaza and parking lot. Residents from around the district appreciated the fresh farm goods and a chance to chat with their friends. Lowell also boasted the first movie house in the district to show talkies. The first feature was “In Old Arizona” starring Warner Baxter as the Cisco Kid. When Bisbee turned the cemetery on Brewery Gulch into a city park, the dearly departed were moved to the new Evergreen Cemetery next to the ice plant along Douglas Highway in Lowell. That highway stretch from Bisbee to Douglas, then U.S. 80, was the first paved road in Arizona. Lowell School was built in 1931 across the road from Evergreen and became another jewel in Bisbee’s educational crown. It included a state of the art auditorium with a fully equipped stage. For many years it was the place for high school and civic events. Lowell School today is home to Bisbee’s junior high students.

Lowell had its share of drama as well. In 1907, four tons of dynamite stored at the Denn Mine exploded leaving a 60-foot crater. No one died, though five people were injured and every window in Lowell was shattered. In 1913, a man with a troubled past named Frank McKenna got into a fight at the Bonanza Saloon and was hauled to justice court and then to jail fighting all the way. Police officer John Rooney struggled with McKenna in the middle of the street resulting in both being fatally shot. The district was still rough around the edges.

Lowell was a busy, active place for many years. Before the mines closed, the Junction Shaft, Lavender Pit operations, the power plant and other support functions of Phelps Dodge were located there. The main street was lined with a variety of stores and services whose names still spark memories: Brophy Garage, Bisbee Lumber Co., Lowell Drug and McQueen’s Pharmacy, Ortega’s and Grant’s shoe stores, Southern Arizona Auto Co., Star Chevrolet, the White House and Aztec Cafés, Lowell Waiting Room, Sprouse-Reitz, Pierson’s barber shop, Steven’s grocery, Vernon’s and Water’s department stores, Spear’s and Ryan’s service stations, the Lowell Theatre and the place with the greatest smells, Arizona Baking Co, known to all as Patsy Bakery. Over the years other businesses lined the only road from Bisbee to the rest of the district and beyond, and Lowell’s place at the center was symbolized by the traffic circle or roundabout as it’s now called around which all traffic in or out of Bisbee flowed.

Now it is mostly quiet, though a few folks still stick around. The road runs behind the town and unless you purposely drive down the old main street, you will miss it. Many buildings are boarded up, though there is life in some. The Bisbee Breakfast Club usually has a line of hungry customers waiting outside and the Food Coop does steady business. The old movie theater has been spruced up and looks like it is ready to roll film. But mostly, Lowell is at rest, a reminder of how Bisbee grew and adapted to the vagaries of the copper industry and how rich and varied life was. It was a busy, bustling town enjoyed by everyone who called Bisbee home.

Credits for This Week's Show

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