Ghosts as Urban Indicators

Given its wild history, mountain geography, and distinct architecture, it’s no wonder that people would want to haunt the historic mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. But what do the town’s ghosts tell us about the livability of this place? What kind of urban indicator can spirits be?

Bisbee, Arizona in 1990

(Photo by Phillip Capper / CC BY 2.0)

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I recently visited the historic mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, with my young daughter. We were looking for ghosts, and according to local lore and organizations like the Southwest Ghost Hunters Association, the town is ripe with them.

Across America, there are hundreds of reportedly haunted urban locations. Sets of books have been written about the hauntings of Chicago, for instance, and the 2008 Haunted America Conference (June 20-21; there’s still time to register) takes place in Decatur, Illinois — billed as “the most haunted small city in the Midwest.”

The most haunted town in the Southwest may be Bisbee, which was founded in 1880 after a tracker discovered mineral deposits while seeking out “renegade” Apaches in the Mule Mountains. One claim begat another, and by 1902 when the “Queen of the Copper Camps” was officially incorporated, and then by 1910 when the downtown was rebuilt after a devastating fire, it was the largest urban area between St. Louis and San Francisco.

The city became one of the most cultured in the Southwest, housing the territory’s first community library, ball fields, and golf course, as well as a popular opera house and as many as fifty saloons in the notorious Brewery Gulch area.

Its success and wealth until the 1970s are directly correlated to mining. Eight billion pounds of copper, 102 million ounces of silver, 2.8 million ounces of gold, and millions of pounds of zinc, lead, and manganese were extracted from the massive Copper Queen Mine in that time. But by 1974 ore reserves were depleted; Phelps Dodge shut down the mine a year later.

Almost overnight hundreds of homes went up for sale and the economy collapsed. Bisbee was on the brink of becoming a literal ghost town. But inexpensive real estate and “the most perfect year round climate” drew retirees, “hippies,” artists, and land speculators. In the three decades since, Bisbee has undergone a resurgence that makes it one of America’s most unique and authentic small towns.

Given its wild history, mountain geography, and distinct architecture, it’s no wonder that people would want to haunt the town. But what do ghosts tell us about the livability of this place? What kind of urban indicator can spirits be?

My daughter and I stayed at the Copper Queen Hotel, the area’s grand dame and host to the dignitaries and most flamboyant cowboys and miners of the time. The spirit of Julia Lowell — a prostitute who fell in love with one of her clients and killed herself when he rejected her — is the hotel’s most famous ghost. She roams throughout the Copper Queen, regularly visiting the café and room 318. Other apparitions include a young boy crying on the 4th floor, and “Billy” the long-nosed ghost, an older gentleman in a top hat, in room 312. Rooms with reported paranormal activity include 412 (windows open and close), 308 (bathroom door opens and closes at night), 304 (doorknob jiggles and locks itself), and 303 (cigar smells and chairs moved against the door).

And then there’s room 210, where my daughter and I slept. We didn’t know that particular room was haunted; we just got lucky. Ghostly activities here have included the sounds of stomping feet, the voice of a woman singing, flickering lights, and toothpaste shooting across the room of its own accord.

I must report that, on the evening we stayed in room 210, all was quiet. Well, the room is above the outdoor patio and this was a Saturday evening so there was plenty of noise outside. But my daughter and I slept soundly, and upon packing up to leave I don’t recall a toothpaste stain above the headboard or the nightly voices of a woman singing, though my daughter talks in her sleep on occasion.

We didn’t really expect to meet a ghost, but the excitement lies in the possibility, nonetheless. And isn’t that what great urban places are about — the opportunity for random encounters, the evocative in the unknown, an authentic place that tantalizes beyond the merely physical?

In the end I’m not certain how ghosts would be quantified as urban indicators (revenues from tourists seeking paranormal experiences may be the easiest to report). That’s only part of the equation, however. Even if the numbers can’t be documented — just as the spirits themselves may never be truly documented — the authentic nature of the place is no phantasm. That’s what keeps people in this life (and perhaps the next) coming back.

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