While we were visiting Bisbee, Arizona, we took a trip slightly south to take in a few of the local sights and attractions. In a later post you’ll be able to visit Lowell, AZ, which was a filming site for both Stephen King’s Desperation, and William Shatner’s Groom Lake. But in the meantime, a scant few hundred yards from that location, let’s take a look at the Lavender open pit copper mine that was mined by Phelps Dodge between 1950 and 1974.
The mine is located at , at an altitude of 4941 feet (1506 m) above mean sea level. Because of the competent host rock, this pit has much steeper sides than other open pit copper mines in the southwest area.
The Lavender mine is huge to look at, but is not the largest in the world by any means. The mine covers an area of 300 acres (1.2 km²), and what was formerly the Sacramento Pit area of the mine, and now considered to be consumed into the Lavender pit area is 900 feet (274 m) deep. When compared to the deepest pit mine in the world, it becomes small by comparison. The Bingham Canyon mine located south-west of Salt Lake City, Utah is more than 1.2km deep and approximately four kilometres wide. That mine, (owned and operated by Rio Tinto Kennecott) has been in production since 1906.
Mining took place in underground tunnels and shafts until 1951 when it was determined by Harrison Lavender, the then-manager of the Copper Queen Branch of Phelps Dodge, that an open pit mine would be an economical way to increase ore yield. The Lavender mine was named in honor of Harrison M. Lavender (1890–1952), who as Vice-President and General Manager of Phelps Dodge Corporation, conceived and carried out the plan for making the previously unprofitable low-grade copper bearing rock of the area into commercial copper ore. It took a few years of preparation before any ore could be mined. There were three communities on the mountain, Upper Lowell, Johnson Addition and Jiggerville. 191 houses and businesses were moved or torn down; 3200 feet of U.S. Highway 80 were relocated and the Southern Pacific railroad line serving Lowell and Bisbee was abandoned. Approximately 46 million tons of barren capping material, called overburden, had to be dug out and $25 million dollars expended before an ounce of copper was produced. A 12,000 ton per day concentrator was built on the mountainside above the pit site and a conveyor belt straddled the highway to lift ore from the primary crusher on the pit floor to the mill for further processing. In some areas, as much as 350 feet of waste material was removed before ore was exposed.
The resulting Lavender mine was mined in 50 foot benches created by loading holes drilled to a 60-foot depth with 1,200 pounds of powder charge. In the early years, highway traffic was stopped in both directions to prevent possible damage from stray rock let loose by the blast. Blasts commonly broke 75,000 tons of rock and were usually shot at 2:55 each afternoon. The blasts could be felt all over town. Mining in the pit stopped in 1974 due to exhaustion of the ore and inability to expand the pit further, and all mining operation ceased in the Copper Queen Mine on December 14th, 1975 when the price of copper plummeted. Here is a photo of the house that we were told that Harrison Lavender lived in. (verification needed) Mr. Lavender passed away shortly before the operation he envisioned got into full swing. The mine was renamed in his honor shortly thereafter.
Phelps Dodge Corporation opened the Lavender Pit in 1950. Engineers projected that there would be 25 years worth of reserves in the mine, and they were not far off. Production through 1974 totaled 86 million tons of ore averaging about 0.7% copper, or about 600,000 tons of copper produced, with gold and silver as byproducts. About 256 million tons of waste were also stripped, with a portion of this being acid-leached for additional copper. Turquoise was also a by-product of this mining activity. Bisbee turquoise, also known as Bisbee Blue, is amongst the finest turquoise found anywhere in the world.
Just as mining operations in the former San Francisco pit came to an end in 1929, mining operations in the Lavender pit ended in 1974 due to exhaustion of the ore, inability to expand the pit further, and declining copper prices. The undeveloped Cochise deposit, located immediately north of the Lavender pit, contains an estimated 190 million tons of rock containing 0.4% acid-soluble copper, which may be mined in the future. Freeport-McMoran purchased the mine from Phelps Dodge in 2007 and is currently going through a long area remediation and environmental process and exploratory operations to possibly reactivate operations at the site.
Since the Phelps Dodge mining operation ceased, the town of Bisbee has reinvented itself as an artist community and historical tourist destination. (click this link for views of current day Bisbee * coming soon *) During this reinvention, the Lavender Pit has become a tourist destination with some magnificent rim viewing platforms. We highly recommend not only the fence cuts in the farther south portion on the east side at the formal “scenic view” sight, but also venturing to the south end of the mine and backing your vehicle up to the fence on the south rim to get some extra height and shoot over the fencing to catch some great shots of the open pit from there as well.
The Lavender pit mine is another location that you should add to your itinerary when visiting Bisbee. The impressive views are worth the short trip south. If you have your camera with you, understand in advance that the fences surrounding the pit are very high, but also have a few holes cut that you can poke your arms through to take some pretty impressive pictures in the correct light. We can only wish that we could get the clearance for a walking tour down into the deep mine pit for some photographs from the bottom of the pit vantage point.
Just north of the Lavender pit mine, you can take a tour of the underground mining tunnels of the Queen Mine. Tour guides, which are retired Phelps Dodge employees, lead each group into the mine tunnels 1,500 feet below the surface and recount mining days, techniques, dangers and drama.