- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2005

BISBEE, Ariz. — Finding the real Old West requires a journey to some of the most remote reaches of Arizona, far away from the urban sprawl that has transformed the Phoenix area from rural outpost into major metropolis.

Towns such as Tombstone, Bisbee and Douglas in Arizona’s southeastern corner, by the borders of Mexico and New Mexico, are only about 200 miles from Phoenix, but they seem a century away. They are reminders of the days when the Wild West was still a wide-open frontier.

Traveling east and south on Interstate 10 from the Valley, as the Phoenix area is called, Tucson is about halfway to the Old West towns. A night or two in Tucson can be an introduction to the decidedly different southeastern part of the state. Less affected by corporate trappings and homogenization than Phoenix, Tucson retains influences from the past: Old World, Mexican and Southwestern charm.

The historic Hotel Congress (800/722-8848, www.hotcong.com), at 311 Congress St., was built in 1919 across the street from Tucson’s Southern Pacific Railroad station, which served mostly as a rest stop for travelers during the railroads’ heyday.

The Congress was a final hideaway of gangster John Dillinger. Accidentally sniffed out by authorities after a fire that destroyed the hotel’s third floor, Dillinger blew his cover when he asked firemen — who later recognized him — to retrieve his gang members’ gun-laden bags from their rooms.

The hotel rooms are sparse but fashionably furnished with antiques — and radios, but no TVs. On a recent spring evening, local singer-guitarist Salvador Duran entertained the lobby bar crowd with a lively mariachi- and flamenco-influenced set. The colorfully decorated great room is a meeting place for hotel guests and locals who dine at the Cup Cafe or drink and dance to the nightly live music at the Club Congress night spot.

Don’t plan on falling asleep early, for the Congress is a nonstop party hotel, and music from the club reverberates through many of the rooms, especially on the second floor, until the last number of the evening. Quieter accommodations are available, though.

The Tap Room, the hotel’s original bar, is a narrow, sometimes dark and smoky neighborhood joint that was featured recently in Southwest Airlines’ Spirit magazine as one of “seven classic bars” across the country.

Tucson and its surroundings can be a complete tourist destination, with enough sites and attractions to merit at least a week’s visit, but they also make an ideal stop for visitors continuing south.

As travelers venture more southeasterly along I-10, the terrain becomes more rugged by the time they reach Benson. A right turn to the south on Arizona Route 80 leads toward Tombstone, Bisbee and Douglas, sites of famous cowboy gunfights, Indian wars and the gold- and copper-mining rush in the late 19th century.

This is where the West really was won and once was Arizona’s most populated region.

Instead of circling the wagons as visitors used to do, the Shady Dell on the edge of Bisbee has a more modern circle of accommodations: vintage aluminum travel trailers, most of them from the 1950s, some even older. With their interiors designed for nostalgia, the trailers are available for overnight stays in one of the country’s most unusual motel settings.

A trip to Bisbee, and to the Dell in particular, is a journey into the past. The Dell is just off the traffic circle where Routes 80 from Douglas and 92 from Naco converge. The front of the office at 1 Douglas Road is painted like an old postcard. The central courtyard and trailer-park grounds look like something out of a Zippy the Pinhead cartoon, decorated with the comic strip’s signature antique roadside advertising icons and tiki statues.

Wesley and Laura Barchenger recently purchased the Shady Dell from its founding partners, Ed Smith and Rita Personett, who in 1994 converted part of what was a regular trailer park into a trailer motel based on their own vintage RV collection.

Originally opened in 1927 as Thompson’s Motor Court, it was called Snowbird Heaven before Mr. Smith and Miss Personett bought the place and renamed it the Shady Dell. It claims to be Arizona’s oldest continuously operating trailer court.

“I saw a classified ad for the place on the Internet, and we took over in April,” says Mr. Barchenger, 34, a former mortician who moved to Bisbee from Alaska. “Laura wanted to go somewhere warmer.” The Shady Dell is bordered on two sides by Evergreen Cemetery.

The eight trailers at the Shady Dell range from a 10-foot Homemade, a kit model pieced together from plans published in Popular Mechanics magazine in 1952, to the 33-foot-long 1951 Spartan Mansion and Royal Mansion. The Homemade is furnished with vintage Southwestern memorabilia, has a stovetop and icebox and is available for $40 a night.

The piece-de-resistance is a 38-foot Chris Craft yacht in its own private dry dock at the back of the park. It has a V-berth sleeping area, fully equipped galley and a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator. At $125 per night, the yacht is the most expensive of the Dell’s accommodations and requires a two-night stay.

I spent a night in the Mansion ($85), which has a birch interior, a refrigerator, a retro red-and-white breakfast booth that looks as if it came from a 1950s diner, a bedroom and a living room with a sofa bed. There also are a vintage TV and record player, a supply of old movies, a VCR and a box of 45 rpm records from the ‘50s.

One of the most interesting items, though, is the guest register, a thick tome dating back a few years, filled with personal anecdotes and drawings depicting serendipitous tales of the Shady Dell and Bisbee.

After a night of bar hopping through the Brewery Gulch commercial district along Main Street, we enjoyed a nightcap of Port wine and cigars while lounging on patio furniture in the yard in front of the trailer, with a moonlight view of the cemetery.

The Mansion also includes a small bathroom, while the 10-foot trailer obviously does not; neither has a shower, but the Dell has large, clean restroom facilities with multiple shower stalls.

In the morning, we became friends with most of the people who had spent the night in the other trailers. In small groups, we squeezed into Dot’s Diner, a 10-stool mobile diner that serves home-cooked meals — which have been written about in Gourmet magazine — and that is just as popular with townsfolk as with Shady Dell guests.

Mr. Barchenger says he recently acquired a 1953 Cottage trailer that looks like a little house on wheels. He is in the process of refurbishing it and an old school bus; both vehicles will be available for overnight stays.

Bisbee itself is a museum, with a colorful history dating to its founding in 1880. It was named for Judge DeWitt Bisbee, who financed the Copper Queen Mine. In its heyday, the mine produced nearly 3 million ounces of gold and more than 8 billion pounds of copper, making it an extremely rich mineral site.

By the early 1900s, resources from the mine had turned Bisbee into the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. With a population of 20,000 people, Bisbee was not only a rough-and-tumble pioneer town with notorious saloons and houses of ill repute, but also a multicultural center that drew writers and artists seeking a new frontier.

Many years later, when the mine ores were depleted, a large portion of the work force left the area, but those who remained transformed the city into the artistic community it is today.

We also stayed at the 15-room Bisbee Grand Hotel (61 Main St., 800/421-1909), a restored combination of Old West and Victorian styles. The hotel has seven uniquely appointed suites; guests in the lively Western saloon are treated to live music almost every night.

The Captain’s Suite is decorated like a maritime museum, with much nautical memorabilia and art. The two-bedroom suite is on the street level, adjacent to the saloon.

Two large windows are filled with model sailboats, ceramic fish and assorted paraphernalia, causing curious pedestrians to stare into the front sitting room as they pass by, wondering if the Captain’s Suite is one of the many antique stores or gift shops along the town’s main thoroughfare. We had so much fun just hanging around and looking about our room that we were reluctant to leave.

Breakfast is served on the hotel’s balcony overlooking Main Street and is included as part of the stay for all guests.

Along Bisbee’s narrow, European-looking hillside streets and sidewalks, one passes an array of art galleries, coffeehouses, bookstores, restaurants and restored hotels. The Bisbee Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, 31 Subway St., has a handy brochure on a Historic Walking Tour of Bisbee.

The tour passes many points of interest that may merit revisiting at greater length. A tour of the inactive Queen Mine includes a train trip 1,500 feet down to the depths of the mine, which covers but a fraction of the 2,300 miles of tunnels dug beneath Bisbee. Visitors wear mining regalia, including lanterns, hard hats and slickers. Temperatures in the mine hover in the mid-40s, although when the outside weather is cooler, the mine is warmer.

Some of the tour guides are former miners who share their experiences and stories. Tours, conducted five times daily, cost $12 for adults and $5 for children ages 4 to 15 (866/432-2071 or click on Queen Mine Tour at www.cityofbisbee.com.

At the center of town, at No. 5 Copper Queen Plaza, the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum (520/432-7071; www.bisbeemuseum.org) is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution; a visit adds to the experience of the mine tour.

Although the Brewery Gulch area once was a cornucopia of watering holes, only a smattering of saloons remain. Among the survivors are St. Elmo’s on Brewery Avenue, which claims to be the oldest bar in the state, and the Stock Exchange on the same street, as well as Hot Licks Saloon, which features barbecue and live music nightly.

The Warren-Bisbee Railway provides a narrated journey through the canyons and cliffs of 19th-century mining country; tours depart from Copper Queen Plaza five times daily. The Bisbee Trolley Car Co. has private charters available for getting around town with another touch of nostalgia.

Bisbee is primarily a tourist town with many hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfast accommodations. They include:

• The Copper Queen Hotel, built in 1902, is Bisbee’s oldest and best-known hotel; room rates start at $83 in the hot summer and fall season and top off at $170 in the busier winter months.

• The Bisbee Grand Hotel (520/432-5900, rooms $55 to $150) and the Inn at Castle Rock (520/432-4449, $59 to $87) are two of the many comfortable and charming B&Bs; in town.

There are almost too many choices for dining in Bisbee. We ate at Cafe Roka, which specializes in Italian and California fusion cuisine (520/432-5153) and claims to be “the only restaurant in rural Arizona to have received the coveted Three-Diamond designation from the AAA 2002 Guidebook.”

Cafe Roka, 35 Main St., in a wonderfully restored old building, is a lively gathering place with a large four-sided bar in the center of the room and live music in a corner by the front window. The street-level dining room also has a cool loft space where we sat with a grand view of the entire room.

Golfers with a sense of history may want to play the course at the Turquoise Valley Golf and RV Park (520/432-3091; www.turquoisevalley.com), which is claimed to be the oldest continually operating golf course in Arizona and to have the longest hole west of the Mississippi River, the 747-yard par-6 Rattler.

Bisbee’s well-preserved natural surroundings foster a very environmentally conscious citizenry, as evidenced by some ecological attractions:

• More than 800 examples of high-desert flora and fauna, including samples of rare and endangered plant life, are on display at the Arizona Cactus & Succulent Research Center (520/432-7040), which offers guided tours and classes on landscaping with desert plants.

• The Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory (520/432-1388; www.sabo.org) is another nonprofit outdoor spot; it conducts environmental and conservation education workshops.

Bisbee’s location — gently nestled beside the Mule Mountains — provides weather conditions dramatically cooler than in Phoenix and Tucson, with an average daily temperature of 64 degrees from October through March and 84 from April through September.

Far away enough to feel like a getaway but close enough to be reached anytime of the year, Bisbee combines Old West adventure with New World charm.

About 30 miles north of Bisbee on Route 80 is Tombstone — coming from Tucson, you’ll pass through Tombstone before reaching Bisbee — but don’t blink because you might miss it.

The one-light town has been well-preserved through the years and, with the exception of a few of the necessary trappings of modern technology, remains in many ways as it was in the days of its founding in 1879.

Tombstone was the site of the most famous gunfight of the Old West, when on Oct. 26, 1881, DocHolliday and Wyatt Earp and his brothers Morgan and Virgil shot it out with the McLaurys and Clantons, leaving three men dead and both of Wyatt Earp’s brothers wounded.

Although the gunfight remains its claim to fame, Tombstone has its origin in a claim of another sort. In the summer of 1877, prospector Ed Schieffelin was trailing through the desert of southeastern Arizona searching for veins of ore deposits.

He began his trek from as far away as Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Schieffelin prospected through the state of Nevada and Death Valley, traversing the route in a circuitous fashion. He traveled through Colorado and New Mexico before entering Arizona and venturing into the San Pedro Valley region at the foothills of what would become Tombstone.

The area at that time was an Apache stronghold where chiefs Geronimo, Victorio and Natchez led raids along the southern border of Arizona. Schieffelin set up camp at a miners’ and soldiers’ retreat known as Brunckow’s Cabin, from which he would depart each morning to comb the dry washes of the Mule Mountains in search of the rich ore deposits he was sure were out there.

When he returned at dusk each night, the other men thought he was living dangerously by venturing into Apache country on his own. They told him of other prospectors who had gone out and had never come back and said the only rock he would find out there would be his tombstone.

When Schieffelin tapped into a vein of silver that eventually would lead him to an $85 million fortune, he tagged his claim with the Tombstone name that would later identify the region.

So many prospectors and pioneers poured into the Tombstone area that the town’s population grew from 100 to 3,000 in the first year and to 7,000 by 1881, by which time Tombstone had earned its rough-and-tumble reputation. In the 1890s, the population reached 15,000, and Tombstone’s Boothill and red-light districts were the largest of any town in the Southwest.

Visitors to Tombstone can walk through the privately owned OK Corral and watch a re-enactment of the famous gunfight every day at 2 p.m. The tour begins with a 30-minute film on the town’s history narrated by actor Vincent Price.

Accounts of the gunfight at OK Corral can be read from the vintage newspapers at the Tombstone Epitaph Newspaper Museum. The museum also offers demonstrations on how newspapers were composed and printed during the 1880s. Admission is free; the museum is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

C.S. Fly Photo Studio and Gallery contains portraits of Geronimo and historic photographs of Tombstone life. For more information, contact the Tombstone Chamber of Commerce (888/457-3929; www.tombstone.org).

A visit to Tucson, Bisbee and Tombstone provides a lively look into legendary Americana: the boisterous, bawdy and brave past of southeastern Arizona.

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