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BISBEE : A long way from its heyday as a mining town, Bisbee brims with contentment now, and sports a passel of characters

January 05, 1986|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

BISBEE, Ariz. — By early evening of a winter weekend, the streets of Bisbee are deserted. Fallen leaves scatter as a chill wind whips off the slopes of the forlorn Mule Mountains and shutters bang against deserted houses sagging on twisted foundations. Except for the wind, there is only the howl of a coyote in the growing darkness.

By night, the town that roared for nearly a century appears to be nothing more than a spooky old spot on a road leading to nowhere.

In its heyday Bisbee's mines turned out $6.1 billion in gold, silver, copper and zinc, but all this ended in the 1970s. The mines are as still as this particular night.

Entering Bisbee, I turned up OK Street to the Bisbee Inn where I'd booked a room for the night. The coyote howled again, its cry echoing through Bisbee's maze of empty streets.

If I feared I'd be spending the night in some drafty old barn, I was wrong. The inn with its yellow glow and warm fire hummed with conversation. While it's not the St. Regis, the Bisbee Inn is clean and comfortable, with guest rooms done up in a setting that appears to be a flashback to Bisbee's more opulent era. Besides, with rates pegged at $22 single and $34 double, including a generous breakfast, I could fault it only for its lack of private baths. At the Bisbee Inn, guests share.

While Bisbee isn't a ghost town (this was evident the following morning), neither is it a boom town. Rather, it's a refuge for artists, craftsmen and an assortment of drifters who grew weary of the pressures of the cities and put in their bid for the harmony of Bisbee.

John Timbers and his schoolteacher wife Joy abandoned Tucson 10 years ago to strike new life into the then-blighted Bisbee Inn. In the process, they discovered an elusive contentment as well as financial success.

Bisbee lures its share of characters. Harry the Embalmer for one. Harry J. Mitchell was a sergeant in the Army at nearby Ft. Huachucha in 1956 and a choir director at the local Baptist Church when he got the calling. A voice from the wilderness whispered, "Wise up, Harry--don't leave." And so after his discharge from the Army he stayed on to become an apprentice embalmer.

Still, Bisbee isn't the sort of place with many residents who are dying to leave, and so Harry Mitchell had to moonlight to make ends meet. In Bisbee and neighboring towns he preached sermons, officiated at weddings, delivered eulogies at funerals and launched himself into the catering business.

After offering the eulogy at a funeral the other morning, Harry the Embalmer stopped by his favorite saloon on Brewery Gulch, brightening up his day with a couple of beers and the cheer of a motley bunch joining him at the bar.

Raising his glass, Harry told them: "Just sent another fine fellow off to glory."

Solemnly, his colleagues raised their glasses. "Amen," they chorused.

Harry the Embalmer is the sort one expects to bump into on a Mississippi river boat, the guy with the string tie, the arm garters and a pair of hot dice.

Damon Runyon would have cherished Harry J. Mitchell whose business card reads: "Weddings, Funerals, Sermons, Used Cars."

Leaving Harry to his cronies--"Bartender, another beer!" cried Harry--I strolled up the street to another B&B, which operates under the grandiose handle of the Inn at Castle Rock. While a trifle shopworn, the Castle Rock is appealing in an informal sense of the word. The Rock is operated by Jim Babcock, a geologist from Aspen, and Dorothy Pearl, a librarian from Sausalito.

A wood-burning stove warms things up in the parlor with its piano and loads of books. Kerosene lamps flicker next door in the dining room, and downstairs in the tearoom guests gather around an old mine shaft brimming over with water and goldfish.

The ex-boarding house for miners features a dozen guest rooms (10 with private baths), including a glitzy Victorian named The Gold Strike with a four-poster bed.

A room with breakfast starts at $20 single and $30 double, including an eyeful of the action along lively Tombstone Canyon that twists by the door.

A few doors away, the shingle outside the venerable Copper Queen Hotel tells of "44 gracious rooms" with baths ($25 to $50) that've attracted the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Black Jack Pershing and actors John Wayne and Lee Marvin. Built by the Copper Queen Mining Co., the four-story Queen does meals in a turn-of-the-century dining room and serves tea and spirits outside on the veranda. (There's even a swimming pool out back.)

Newest on the hotel scene is former Phoenix antique dealer Nell Peel, who remodeled the Bisbee Grand Hotel to serve as a storehouse for her treasures. An ex-brothel, the Bisbee Grand offers nine rooms and three suites that are filled with the antiques Peel gathered during her travels.

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