Sunday, February 24, 1914, was a big day in Bisbee. The headline in The Bisbee Daily Review proclaimed “Bisbee’s Magnificent High School which will be Dedicated This Afternoon; Elaborate Ceremonies to Attend the Occasion”. The paper followed up two days later. “Attended by the largest crowd which ever assembled in the history of the City of Bisbee and the Warren district the corner stone for the new Bisbee High School was placed Sunday afternoon. From the hour of noon Sunday the crowds began to congregate on the downtown streets and by the time the parade started, Main Street and all the other thoroughfares adjacent were packed to capacity.”
The new school was truly a big deal to the citizens of Bisbee. The paper went on to report that long before the parade started, thousands of people were congregating…the streets were so congested that it was with difficulty that a space was cleared large enough for pedestrians to pass through. On account of the character of the ground, onlookers were packed on the sides of the hill surrounding the school site. In other words, it was hard to find a level spot to stand or sit—welcome to Bisbee.
Following the “Star Spangled Banner”, a prayer by the Grand Chaplain of the Masonic Lodge, and a few songs by a quartet, the cornerstone was set. Judging from reports, the cornerstone was pretty full. A copper box was the time capsule and included a bible, U.S. and Arizona Constitutions, a copy of the local paper describing the festivities, lists of national, state and local officers, a directory of Cochise County schools, the roll of all students enrolled in Bisbee schools, a list of all the fraternal lodges in Bisbee, a collection of coins and medals, an American flag, a list of high school alums and a course of study for Arizona public schools. It was a collection fit to honor a major milestone in Bisbee’s progress and to emphasize how important learning was to the citizens.
And folks were proud. The big yellow structure, built on a steep hill, housed under one roof all the components of a good school of that period. It was built for 450 students on four levels including the basement which housed the commercial and domestic departments. On the floors above were the Superintendent’s office, academic recitation rooms which we call classrooms today, a study hall decorated with a depiction of the “Triumphal Entry of Alexander the Great into Babylon”, the library, manual training rooms and science labs. The gymnasium, 66’ by 54’ and 18’ high was state of the art and easily convertible to an auditorium seating 600. It had a balcony and wings and fly space making it usable for a variety of performances as well as basketball and physical education since compulsory training in gym was the rule for every student. The town could boast that it had the best school building in the state.
Remarkably, by today’s standards, this 45,000 square feet of educational progress was a bargain—the whole thing cost $85,000 and was constructed of pressed brick covered by gypsum plaster. Curiously, because of its location on the mountain all four levels had a ground floor entrance which earned it a spot in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Bisbee was on the map. Bisbee High School opened for the 1914-15 school year and the completed structure was formally accepted by the school board on November 9 followed by an open house on November 13. It is not hard to imagine that everybody in town showed up for that. The first graduating class was small, less than forty students but Bisbee was ready for the future.
That future suffered a setback on December 16, 1919 when fire gutted the interior of the building. Heroic efforts by firefighters, administrators and teachers saved most of the school records, library books, and some furniture. The commercial teacher, Miss Worley, managed to save all the typewriters in her room and with help stored them in a neighboring garage. In those days, there were two graduating classes each year and two nearby churches, the Methodist and Episcopal offered their sanctuaries for commencement. Though reconstruction costs reportedly exceeded the insured amount, an adjustment was made and Bisbee High School was restored and reopened.
By the 1950’s, as the mining industry and Bisbee expanded, the iconic structure, built to hold 450 students, was overflowing with almost 800 young people. Teachers and students from those years remember that the halls and stairs were so crowded between classes that a book dropped was a book lost. The district and town realized that a new school was needed. A bond issue passed and the “new” Bisbee High School was constructed in Warren on School Terrace Road. The modern plant was as state of the art when it opened in 1959 as the building on High School Hill had been in 1914. The graduating class of 1959 started the school year in the big yellow building and moved to the current school in January. The “B” on Chihuahua Hill had kept watch over thousands of Bisbee’s youth who passed through the doors for nearly 45 years.
The old school was home to the school district administration and other city and county agencies for several years. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 assuring its survival and was eventually purchased by Cochise County which occupies it today.
As you drive into Bisbee from Lowell winding up along Slag Dump Hill, Old Bisbee High School is the most prominent structure on the mountain, and your eye is naturally drawn to its yellow façade and graceful corners. It continues as a reminder of an earlier time in this booming mining town when citizens took pride in progress, expected great things of their children, understood the value of education and would turn out in mass on a February Sunday to celebrate the completion of Bisbee’s latest achievement: The New High School Building.