More Uses for Cockroaches: Queen Copper Mine in Bisbee, Arizona

Tombstone’s approach to avoiding its inevitable ghost town status was to turn itself into a tourist attraction, lovingly restoring buildings to 1880 décor and having the local townsfolk dress in period costumes. Bisbee, 30 miles southeast, took an entirely different approach. It tried to recreate itself as an artist’s paradise, enticing artists and galleries, fanciful murals and, for reasons that escape me, zombie culture. It succeeded somewhat, reversing the population decline from the mid-1970’s to become one of those towns whose website describes itself as “having a thriving arts/music/hospitality scene”.


The single throwback to Bisbee’s bygone era is the Queen Mine, a copper mine dating  from the 1880’s. It operated underground until after World War II, when it became an open put mine, the remnants of which are still visible today:


The mine closed in 1975, but tours are offered daily, which is where I found myself at 9:00AM. My travel companion and I first watched an informative film about copper mining, then were fitted with appropriate attire: a vest, a hard hat and a flashlight. We signed a waiver, indicating we fully understood and accepted all of the dangers inherent in going into an underground mine and met our guide, Benny, and the train that would take us into the mine.


Benny was a former miner at the Queen Mine. He started  in 1957, after finishing high school ,and stayed until the mine closed. The mining company offered to send him to school after he lost his job so he went into law enforcement and was a police detective for 27 years. He was also elected to the Bisbee town council before coming to the mine to lead tours 8 years ago. As a miner, he mostly laid railway tracks in the mine (depending on what site you look at, there are between 350 and 5,000 miles of railroad under Bisbee), but he also did search and rescue in the mine (there were 3 deaths-1 heart attack victim, the other 2 mine accidents) and set dynamite. Needless to say, he was a wealth of information about mining.

We were the only 2 on the  tour, so we hopped on the train- reminiscent of the Disney World mine ride except there was no water and we straddled the padded yellow posts on the train. We entered the mine and were thrust into near darkness, tootling about 1500 feet into the mine.


Our flashlights showed the path-endless rail lines and rough cut tunnels. We made a few stops. At the first one, Benny showed us the shafts through which ore was shunted from level to level – sort of an ore laundry chute.


At the next stop, timbers provided support to the rock walls and created doors that acted as firewalls. Benny explained that only douglas fir and pine trees were used in mines since they audibly creak if the earth is moving, a sure sign of a mine cave-in. The other sure sign (hence the title of this post), is mice and cockroaches scurrying out the of a tunnel. According to Benny, cockroaches (and mice) have a symbiotic relationship with the earth that allows them to know in advance when it is moving. When cockroaches are racing away from a tunnel, that is advance warning  a cave-in is about to happen.

I will digress somewhat here. I do not like little things like cockroaches or geckos that scuttle about, scaring the crap out of me when they show up near pools or sidewalks. I have learned to tolerate geckos by repeating the mantra “they are my friends; they eat mosquitoes.” Having lived in Winnipeg for 10 years, I know the benefits of limiting mosquitoes, not that I ever saw a single gecko in Winnipeg. But I never knew of any use for cockroaches until, twice, in the last 48 hours, have learned of 2 valuable services they provide.  In the Biosphere2, I was told  cockroaches aerate the rainforest by eating dead leaves. Now, in the mine, I learn they forecast cave-ins. Useful information I suppose, but since I tend to be in rainforests and mines only once a decade,  I am not convinced the world would be better off without cockroaches.

Back to the mine tour. Benny demonstrated how to properly install dynamite in a mine. It is never a single stick, but up to 26 sticks arranged in a circle. The fuses are each an inch longer than the last, so there is not a single blast, but 26 blasts starting from the center and moving outward. The miners listen for 26 blasts, If they only hear 25, they know they have a problem.


Benny showed us various tools and contraptions used by the miners, including the sanitation device for –use your imagination- but there are no bathrooms in a mine. The miners were paid $45 per day, with the ability to earn a lot more if they exceeded their daily quotas. Benny often laid more railroad tracks than required (14 feet per day with a partner), so some weeks he made a fortune – up to $2000 a week.

An hour and a half later, we re-emerged into the sunlight and the warmth of an Arizona summer,  with increased  knowledge of mining, much more respect for the miners and maybe a tiny bit of tolerance for cockroaches.




Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: Tombstone, Arizona

Some places demand you put logic aside, close your eyes and enjoy the experience. DisneyWorld and Colonial Williamsburg are two such places; Tombstone, Arizona is another.

Tombstone’s History:

Located about 90 miles south east of Tucson, Tombstone was founded by a prospector named Ed Schieffelin in 1879. It was one of many boom towns supported by a nearby silver mine, boasting a population of over 14,000 by 1885.  4 churches, a bowling alley, a school, 2 banks, 3 newspapers and an opera house frequented by the respected folks (the Schieffelin theatre), a theatre for the not so respectful miners and cowboys (the Bird Cage) along with hundreds of saloons, some brothels and gambling halls lined the main streets.


The population was split between the miners and the “cowboys”, but that term was used negatively to refer to the outlaws who rustled cows and smuggled them over the nearby (30 miles) Mexican border. Near Tombstone, some cowboys attempted to rob a US stagecoach in March, 1881, killing a passenger and a popular driver. Deputy US Marshal, Virgil Earp, his two temporary deputies and brothers, Wyatt and Morgan, along with a dentist, Doc Holliday, set off in search of the perpetrators. This started a feud which culminated in the fight at the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881, in which 3 cowboys (Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton) were killed.

After the original fight, Morgan Earp was ambushed and killed. Wyatt and Virgil were run out of town in 1882 by citizens tired of the gunfights. Wyatt traveled to a number of western boom towns, including one in Alaska, before settling in Hollywood in the 1920’s and befriending actors. Doc Holliday died in Colorado of tuberculosis at the age of 36, after escaping extradition proceedings in New Mexico for his role in the O.K. Corral battle and another posse that killed more cowboys in 1882.

Tombstone suffered an equally unglamourous demise. The main pumping plant servicing the silver mine burned in 1886 and, shortly thereafter, the price of silver slumped. People left in droves. By 1890, only 1900 residents remained, dwindling to under 1000 in 1900.

Tombstone Today:

Tombstone was revived as a tourism spot, in large part due to its well -preserved buildings. Today, one can visit the Birdcage Theatre, complete with appropriately clad ticket takers, stroll along the boardwalks where photographers offer to dress you up in period costumes and produce sepia coloured photos or enter a saloon for a bite to eat or a wine tasting which I am not sure was popular in the 1880’s. The main street is packed with red dirt, becoming a slush pond on rainy days.

Stagecoach rides are offered for $10, with a driver who provides commentary through electric speakers and seats far more padded than the originals.


A diorama shows a 25 minute movie about Tombstone and the gunfight. That gunfight is reenacted 3 times daily around town and at the actual sight of the gun battle, which was a vacant lot next to the photography studio of C.S. Fly.


The audience is encouraged to clap for the good guys and boo the bad guys. The climax is the 30 seconds of gunfire, during which 30 bullets are fired, just like in 1881. Two of the bad guys die; another staggers around for a few minutes. At the conclusion, the lawmen graciously pose for pictures and ask for donations to the starving actors fund.


The former newspaper office of the Tombstone Epitaph is part newspaper museum and part tribute to its founder, John Clum. Originally from the east, he fell in love with the west when he became an Indian agent, maintaining order on a nearby Indian Reservation. He counted, as one of his triumphs, the capture of Geronimo (who was freed by Clum’s successor, leading to 15 years of bloodshed and Indian wars until he was recaptured). Clum was elected mayor of Tombstone in 1881 on a platform of ending the lawlessness, despite beign good friends with Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. For a while, he succeeded, making carrying guns in Tombstone illegal. That was short-lived – Arizona is now an open carry state.

Hokey as it is, Tombstone is fun to visit. It is lovingly preserved (although purists argue some of the restorations are recreations gone too far), the town folks friendly without being pushy and the downtown large enough to wander through without being bothered by throngs of tourists. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and in contrast to places like Cody, Wyoming, doesn’t present an idealized version of the Wild, Wild West. Streets get muddy, towns burn, mines come and go, people die in gunfights.

Weird Science: Biosphere2

My favourite attractions leave me feeling satisfied, having learned something new or made me think about an issue in a different light or provided the pleasure of seeing a beautiful sight. My visit to Biosphere2 failed on most accounts, making me feel that I had been enticed to see one thing and was shown something completely different.

Biosphere2’s claim to fame

In 1991 a Texan billionaire named Ed Bass teamed up with an ex-cult figure called John Allen to create a completely self-sustaining environment, with an indoor 3 acre farm to plant crops and 5 enclosed biospheres each containing a different ecological system: an ocean with coral reefs, a rainforest, mangrove wetlands, a fog desert and savannah grasslands. The technosphere was a 3 mile underground conglomerate of pipes, energy supplies and air regeneration equipment. Biosphere2 also had living quarters for 8 biospherians, a select group of idealistic men and women who agreed to spend 2 years in the Biosphere 2, relying only on the materials inside for their survival. The experiment was named Biosphere2, The Closed Mission. It is located about 45 minutes from Tucson, Arizona:


The ostensible purpose of the experiment was to prove that humans could survive for long periods of time in a closed environment, perhaps on Mars, perhaps in outer space. The biospherians, clad in their Star Trek inspired designer outfits, were paraded before the world media as they entered their airtight cocoon for two years in September, 1991 to begin their experiment.

Problems surfaced quickly. One of the biospherians had to leave the Biosphere following an injury to her hand which the medical doctor inside was unable to remedy. She returned carrying a duffle bag of materials, which the media declared amounted to cheating on the experiment. The crops inside failed to achieve their targets, leading to considerable malnutrition and weight loss of the inhabitants.

Most significantly, the plants inside the biosphere failed to photosynthesize as quickly as needed, leading to an abundance of carbon dioxide inside. The biospherians were slowly being suffocated, leading to lethargy and other ills. To resolve the lack of oxygen, outside management decided to allow external air into the biosphere, compromising the self-sufficiency aspect of the entire experiment.


Nonetheless, two years later, the biospherians emerged from their bubble and declared it a success. Time Magazine was not so enthusiastic, declaring it one of the Worst 100 Ideas of the 20th century. Current analysis of its value is split into two camps. Those who considered it as an experiment to determine if people could live in a self-sufficient environment for an extended period view it as a failure, pointing to the outside assistance needed to sustain the project. The other camp recharacterizes the purpose of the Biosphere2 as an opportunity to determine how people could live in a self-sustaining system, regarding all the problems encountered as lessons learned. They note some of those lessons are currently being applied on the Space Station and in Antarctica research stations.

The Tour:

However, one regards the Biosphere2 experiment, very little of it is mentioned on the current tour. Our docent, Carol, met us and ushered us into a theatre for a short video about the current Biosphere2. After the original biospherians left in 1993, a second group of 8 entered the domes, but emerged just 6 months later amid infighting amongst the management, a raid by law enforcement officials and somehow, Steve Bannon’s (the former Trump advisor) involvement. None of this was mentioned by Carol. Instead, she advised that Columbia University took over Biosphere2 initially but currently, the University of Arizona manages it.

Nor was there reference to the length of time the original biospherians spent in the Biosphere2. Carol did drop a few tidbits about the Closed Mission:

  • Because of the bean failure, coffee was rationed to a single cup every two weeks;
  • Ants and cockroaches thrived, with the cockroaches becoming coworkers by aerating the dead leaves in the rainforest;
  • The biospherians took to eating their grain seeds to off ward off hunger.

But mostly,  the tour focused on the current or anticipated scientific experiments that the University would carry out,  relating to the effects of climate change on the ocean and rainforest, matters I suspect are of less than overwhelming concern in the middle of the Mojave desert.

(The mock ocean and rainforest).

This is a missed opportunity., in my opinion. If the University of Arizona wants to exploit Biosphere2 and turn it into a tourist attraction, it should focus on the Closed Mission, its goals, successes or failures It could have a gift shop selling T-shirts and coffee mugs declaring “I survived the Biosphere2” and have videos of the biospherians entering and exiting. Maybe it could invite back some of the biospherians or do a sequel “where are they now.”  In any event,  I shouldn’t have to survey the internet to find out what happened to the Closed Mission at Biosphere2.

Instead, the current tour just tries to sweep the whole thing under the rug like a bad memory, an experiment poorly conceived and badly implemented. Whatever its merit, the Biosphere2 Closed Mission deserves more than passing mention on a tour of the Biosphere2.

No Bones About It: Pima Boneyard Tour

There are no bones on a Pima boneyard tour. It doesn’t involve a cemetery or a medical school anatomy class or even a skeleton. What it does have are airplanes, lots of them. A boneyard is where old planes go to live out the remainder of their useful lives, either as back-up planes or for spare parts, until they are deemed completely obsolete and are shredded (sold for scrap). One of the largest boneyards in the world, and the only one available for public tours, is located at the Pima Air and Space Museum near Tucson, Arizona.

Being allowed on the tour is no mean feat. Since getting to the boneyard requires going through the active Davis – Monthan Air Force Base, precautions are taken to ensure no undesirables are on board the tour bus. Pre-approval 2 weeks in advance is absolutely necessary. Ever so cautious, I had applied 4 weeks before providing all requested information, but heard nothing in the promised response time of 3 days. I sent another application and still heard nothing. “Maybe I was no longer a good security risk?” I wondered. Was it because I no longer had a job? Maybe I shouldn’t have told the customs officer I didn’t have an address when he asked where I lived.

Beginning to panic, I started to leave voice mail messages at the museum, but was never able to connect. Finally, 4 frantic phone messages later and 2 days before the deadline, I received a confirmation email. I was cleared to take a 5 minute bus ride across the Air Force base as long as I didn’t carry firearms, knives or backpacks and promised to obey all commands regarding photographs.

On the day of the boneyard tour, I arrived with an hour to spare at Pima. Although the boneyard  was my primary objective, the Air and Space Museum has plenty of other historic aircraft. Despite the heat being 43 degrees, I walked outside and looked at some of the planes. An Air Force One which had ferried Presidents Kennedy and Johnson was there, along with a B-36, a Blue Angel and some crazy looking NASA contraption.

The Museum was staffed by lots of volunteers – all pilots or persons with connections to the Air Force. Each was eager to share their flying stories with everybody. As I was looking at an early model Learjet, Mark approached me. He was in his 70s. He had contracted polio as a youth and been left with a bad leg (he was in a wheelchair). He had been rejected by the military, but still learned to fly and had been doing so for nearly 50 years. He asked if I wanted to fly, but I admitted my nervousness of flying. He said flying was the second best thing one can ever do. Suckered in, I asked him what was the best. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes, like he had probably done hundreds of times before, then replied: “landing.”

We boarded the bus for the boneyard tour with our confirmations and a 2nd show of our passports and purses (to make sure there were no guns in them), then drove to the base where we all dismounted and gave our passports (3rd time) over to an air force person. We waited in a hot, dark shed for about 10 minutes before he returned, gave us our passports back and reboarded the bus.

Our docent, Thomas, was a former air force pilot who had originally trained at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Once he left the military, he had continued to fly for a state national guard. As the bus drove, he delivered a treasure trove of information. The boneyard contains 3400 mostly military aircraft, down from a high of 6,000. Upon arrival at the boneyard, each aircraft is inventoried by a specialized parts manager, then readied for its stay. It is first covered with a black sealant, then its windows, engine faces and nose sprayed with a white sealant, giving all the planes a ghostlike appearance.


The white seals have the effect of maintaining the interior temperature 15 degrees cooler than the Tucson desert. The interior instruments can be damaged at about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, so the seals give the necessary cushion if it gets over 130 degrees.

One plane, of course, did not need the seals. It was the Stealth, which as everyone knows, is invisible. Here it is:


A little boneyard humour (courtesy of Thomas).

As we drove through the boneyard, seeing plane upon plane, Thomas narrated information about each plane. A common naming system meant the starting letter of each plane indicates its function, so an A plane is an Attack plane, a B (like in B-52) is a Bomber, C (as in C-36) is Cargo. The F-18 is a Fighter and Thomas added that he hoped when the sequel to Top Gun is made, Tom Cruise would play the grandfather.

Words cannot adequately describe the sight of thousands of planes sitting in the Arizona sun, so I shall end with pictures.

Probably hundreds of billions of dollars worth of planes lined up like toy cars in a store window. It was quite a sight.