Though the majority of the original townsite was consumed by the excavation of the Lavender Pit mine during the 1950s, what remains today is a photographer’s dream. The one street that is left features mid-century buildings, signs, and artifacts in a colorful display that makes visitors feel as if they have taken a step back in time.
Bisbee, the “Cooper Queen” of Arizona, got its start in the 1870s in the steep wooded canyon northeast of Lowell. However, as the Bisbee Mining District spread south and east as more claims were made and more mines opened, houses and businesses followed sprouting up wherever a vacant spot could be found.
The claims which eventually made up the Lowell Mine were first located by W.S. Salmon in 1879, however, he completed no work upon the claims. In February 1899, Frank Hanchett of Lowell, Massachusetts, purchased the property and started the Lowell & Arizona Copper Mining and Smelting Company. Hanchett then began to construct buildings and a headframe, and in March, shafts were sunk that would soon reach 900 feet. Work continued rapidly, and the Lowell Mine’s importance was revealed by a monthly payroll of $10,000 with 60 men employed. However, the operation struggled when water became problematic beyond the 1100 feet level.
Both the mine and the town of Lowell were most likely named for Hanchett’s hometown. The first businesses in Lowell — two saloons and a livery stable — were built in 1900, spearheading development.
By October 1902, the Lowell Mine had come into possession of the Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Company which soon sank the shaft an additional 30 feet and discovered an important orebody assuring the success of the mine. Soon after, a tent community formed near the mine, which continued to grow, particularly, after the establishment of the Junction, Hoatson, and Briggs Mines. Soon, Erie Street was established as a business and social center near the Lowell and Hoasten Mines. Before long there were also a number of saloons and boarding houses that provided lodging for the growing workforce.
In 1904, plans were laid out for the Lowell townsite and it received a post office. In 1906, the Chief Engineer for the Copper Queen Mining Company was directed to prepare 90 lots in upper Lowell for miners and managerial staff. That same year, a petition to incorporate Lowell failed when only 35 of the needed 80 property owners signed.
In 1906, the Copper Queen Company decided that it would forfeit the $.50 land rent for homes and use the money to install a garbage collection and fire protection systems for the town.
In 1907, four tons of dynamite stored at the Denn Mine exploded leaving a 60-foot crater. Thankfully, no one was killed but five people were injured and every window in Lowell was shattered.
In 1908, a petition passed to annex Lowell to Bisbee. That year, Erie Street featured eight saloons where miners could quench their thirst. There were also several “houses of ill repute” that provided female companionship. However, as the Warren Mining District continued to attract families to the area, these establishments came under attack by members of the local morality movement.
The same year, the Warren-Bisbee Railway, an eight-mile electric railway began service on March 12, 1908, operating a 30-minute service with 42-foot McGuire-Cummings interurban cars. In addition to the mainline, a four-mile “High Line” extended from Warren to serve several of the area’s copper mines. 1909 and 1910 the line was extended from Bisbee streets to “Warren & Tombstone Canyon,” bringing the track mileage to 8.05.
The population of Lowell 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. By that time the town had a railroad depot, a number of businesses, and a stop on the Warren-Bisbee Railway. In 1915, Lowell boasted 5,000 citizens.
In 1917, the Bisbee Daily Review described Lowell as:
“One of the most energetic towns in the state and a payroll that would dazzle many cities a great deal larger.”
That same year, both Bisbee and Lowell suffered from the Bisbee Deportation. At that time, miners were striking and Phelps Dodge, in collusion with the sheriff, moved to kidnap and deport about 1,300 striking mineworkers and their supporters. With 2,000 members of a deputized posse, the arrests started on July 12, 1917, in Bisbee. Phelps Dodge, the major mining company in the area, provided lists of workers and others who were to be arrested to Cochise County sheriff, Harry C. Wheeler. Those arrested were loaded onto cattle cars and deported 200 miles to Tres Hermanas, New Mexico. After being warned against returning to Bisbee, the U.S. government moved most of the deportees to Columbus, New Mexico.
In the meantime, Phelps Dodge, in collusion with the sheriff, closed down access to outside communications so it was some time before the story was reported. Afterward, the company said that the deportation reduced threats to United States interests in World War I because the wartime demand for copper was heavy. Though a presidential mediation commission described the deportation as “wholly illegal and without authority in law,” no one was ever convicted in connection with the deportations.
In 1920, Lowell was called home to more than 6,000 people. It was busy with schools, shops, churches, recreational facilities, and plenty of saloons and boarding houses, though these were gradually being replaced by family homes. Lowell also boasted the first movie house in the district. The highway stretch from Bisbee to Douglas, then U.S. 80, was the first paved road in Arizona.
During this time, the end of the Lowell mine was in sight. In 1926, the steel headframe was removed and installed at the Warren Shaft. Even without a headframe and the main shaft abandoned, mining continued in the Lowell Mine area for a few more years.
With the Merger of the Calumet & Arizona Mining Company and Phelps Dodge, the Lowell Mine was closed and the change house was moved to the Campbell Mine. Lowell continued to hold on as a residential and business area in the next years but slowed during the Great Depression as the value of copper declined.
In 1931, the Lowell School was built across the road from the Evergreen Cemetery. It included a state-of-the-art auditorium with a fully equipped stage. The school continues to stand and now serves junior high students.
From 1935-1940, parts of the Lowell Mines were leased. After this point, any ore remaining in the former ground of the Lowell mine was mined through the Dallas Mine.
The Copper Queen hospital building was moved from Sacramento Hill when the open pit expanded. But, Lowell remained a busy active community. The main street was lined with many businesses including Brophy Garage, Bisbee Lumber Company, the Southern Arizona Auto Co. Star Chevrolet, two pharmacies, two shoe stores, two cafes, barbershops, grocery stores, department stores, and service stations. A branch of the Phelps Dodge Mercantile was also established in Lowell. The Lowell Clubhouse held a dance on Friday nights ending in time for partiers to catch the 11:30 trolley back up the hill to Bisbee.
Phelps Dodge Corporation opened the Lavender Pit in 1950, at the site of the earlier, higher-grade Sacramento Hill mine. By this time, more than half of Lowell was in the path of new development for the massive pit. Ironically, the source of Lowell’s success would also be its demise. The Southern Pacific railroad track into Old Bisbee was abandoned in 1951 and afterward, the railroad terminated in Bakerville.
In the next years, the development of the Lavender Pit involved the area occupied by Lowell and other small suburbs. More than 250 homes and 20 businesses needed to be moved. Residents were offered the option of either receiving the market value for their home, which would then be demolished, or the company would pay to have the structures moved to a new site. A new subdivision called Saginaw was established to the east of Lowell, and nearly 200 homes were relocated both there and to open spaces between Lowell and Warren. This created the new towns of Bakerville, Saginaw, Galena, and Briggs. By 1957, few were left living in Lowell.
A major relocation of Highway 80 was also required to accommodate the expanding pit. Soon the settlements of Upper Lowell, Jiggerville, and the Johnson Addition were obliterated. Lowell was left stagnated with the highway bypassing it. In 1959, all the local towns were annexed and became the “City of Bisbee.” As the 1950s and 60s progressed, the Lavender Pit became deeper and wider.
Production through 1974 totaled 86 million tons of ore which produced about 600,000 tons of copper, with gold, silver, and turquoise as byproducts. Mining operations in the Lavender Pit ended in 1974. However, the undeveloped Cochise deposit, located immediately to the north of the Lavender pit, contains copper which could be mined in the future.
Today, the pit covers an area of 300 acres and is 900 feet deep.
Though much of Lowell was lost to the pit, a fragment of Lowell’s commercial district was saved along Erie Street. In fact, it was more than “saved,” the quarter-mile road was preserved and improved to cultivate a vintage peak of an earlier time. For years, business owners, locals, and other enthusiastic individuals have banded together to create a distinctive outdoor museum that showcases the decades of the 1940s through the early 1970s.
This effort called the “Lowell Americana Project” is made up of volunteers who have worked hard in restoring and enhancing the street with colorful hand-painted signs, storefronts, old gas pumps, historic cars and motorcycles, and even an old greyhound bus.
The Lowell Americana Project has garnered national and international media attention and praise for the project’s cultural preservation efforts, making this unique location one of the most photographed streets in the West. It has appeared on magazine and album covers as well as having been utilized as a backdrop for film and video shoots.
With the Junction Shaft headframe towering over downtown Lowell, visitors will see the facades of a restored Gulf Gas Station, an old movie theatre, a pool hall, Harley Davidson repair shop, a five-and-dime store, a hat shop, and more. Many displays can be viewed through the windows.
Lowell is perched at the southern end of the dramatic Lavender Pit in southern Bisbee, Arizona.