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Higgins and Twilight Mines, Bisbee, Arizona

Last Updated: 1st Nov 2017

By Rolf Luetcke

Higgins and the Twilight Mines, Bisbee, Arizona
By Rolf Luetcke

When I moved to Bisbee in 1971 I found a house to rent on Higgins Avenue, the road named for the mountain called Higgins Hill and the Higgins Mine above the town just to the South of where I lived and above the Court House and Catholic Church in old Bisbee. The name Higgins came from Thomas Higgins, who had come to Bisbee at the turn of the century and started the Higgins Mine. I later bought the house and lived there for 15 years. One view was of the big, steep mountain that ended up on top of what is known as Escabrosa Ridge. The ridge ran from East to West all along the South end of the Mule Mountains and I hiked this ridge the whole length a few times. The limestone of the area are the Martin Limestone formation where the Higgins Mine is and above where the Twilight is the limestone is called the Mississippian Escabrosa Limestone formation. This ridge ran East-West and was divided from the Northern part of the Mule Mountains by Tombstone Canyon, which is where most of old town Bisbee is located. The history of the Mule Mountains and the modern man goes back to the 1800's. The discovery of ore in the area was by a Cavalry troop that was chasing the Apaches of the area. On the way back to Fort Huachuca they stopped in what is now old Bisbee to camp. There was water and shelter near modern day Castle Rock. One of the scouts of the group was also a prospector and found outcrops of mineralized material which started the early mine discoveries in Bisbee. This early history is not discussed in this article.
At the time I moved to Bisbee I hiked a lot and right at the end of the road I lived on was a guard rail that abutted the bypass that went down to Bisbee, skirting the slow, winding road that went down Tombstone Canyon. If you walked across the highway you were in Quarry Canyon, which went to a place the early people of Bisbee quarried limestone for buildings and walls. There was a dirt road that went up to the lower wide area of Quarry Canyon. Beyond this the canyon got steep quickly and narrowed and went up and up to the Escabrosa ridge above. I often hiked this canyon to get access to the upper parts of the Mule Mountains on the South side of the range. There was a small mine half way up Quarry Canyon that went into the side of the mountain and had a stream of totally clear water coming out of the mine. The dump here was not too large and very little color was visible on the surface of the dump. Quarry Canyon was bought up by someone a few years back and is now gated and not open to access.
From my house I could look up at the mountain and see many mines. There was a dirt road that was across the highway and a few hundred feet to the East that went up toward the Higgins Mine but the road was gated and the gate locked. If I went up Quarry Canyon and then hiked up the hill to the East there was no fence, no sign and I often used animal trails to hike up onto the mountain. When I wanted exercise I often hiked from my house to the Escabrosa ridge and timed myself. There was also access to the various mines hiking up this route and I explored there often. The lower area just up from Quarry Canyon you would come to a ridge and a short way down was the dirt road from the bypass highway and this road went to the entrance of the Higgins Mine. Just before you got to the level area by the mine entrance there was a wooden loading platform on the South side of the road on top of a big mine dump. On the other side of the road there was another large dump. It was only a few yards farther on to the level area where the Higgins Mine entrance was. The Higgins Mine was worked early on in 1881 and a 70 foot shaft was dug at that time. The Higgins was begun as a mine in 1900 as a copper, lead, manganese, gold, silver and vanadium mine and the main production of the mine was between 1913 and 1920. The zone that was accessed was about 160 meters long, 46 meters wide and produced 33,000 tons of base metal ore during this period. Another 21,000 tons of manganese ore was produced between 1913 and 1943, when the mine closed. The mine connected underground to the Wolverine and Southwest Mine groups. The Higgins Mine was leased at periods by companies that found new ore but by 1940 the ore was exhausted and the mine closed three years later. The list of minerals on mindat for the Higgins Mine is 29 different minerals.
At the one dump below the wooden loading chute were a few pieces I found of lead ore from the Higgins Mine. I only collected a few pieces here. At a later time I looked more closely at the lead ore pieces I had collected and found small anglesite crystals as well as the galena in the specimens. The galena was quite fine grained in the cleavages from the Higgins as compared to the much larger cleavages from the Lavender Pit. At the Higgins Mine entrance was an old metal gate that was partly broken since the old metal was quite rusty. I believe people entering the mine had loosened and bent the old rusty gate. There was a stream of ice cold and clear water that ran out of the tunnel of the Higgins Mine. The water flowed year round and the little stream soaked into the built up old tailings and didn't flow beyond the dumps. There was a nice cottonwood tree that had grown from the constant running water.
Above the Higgins Mine tunnel was a very steep mountain, too steep to climb and it had been slowly crumbling down and raining dirt down that eventually blocked off the water coming out of the mine and narrowed the opening to the mine to a hole only about three feet wide. I worked my way around this steepest part of the hill to climb up to the various holes that were above the Higgins Mine. At the time I believed that it was all part of the Higgins Mine but much later found that the mine above was actually a different mine called the Twilight Mine or Twilight Claim. A few hundred feet up the hill was a large opening that could be seen from below where my house was and from much of old Bisbee. We all called it the black hole since the ore was mostly the black manganese material. It was a large opening in the mountain where the early mining had removed a lot of the ore from the vein of manganese which ran along the hill. To this day the people living in Bisbee still call this hole the Higgins Mine, which is technically not correct. The company working the Higgins Mine bought out the Twilight Mine property and it was all worked under the name Higgins but they are listed as two separate mines in the literature. The Twilight Mine was begun in 1918 and was the largest manganese mine in the Bisbee area. There is a thousand foot zone of deposits that run basically West to East. The main ore body was about 200 feet long by 30 feet wide. The large hole at the top is about 40 feet deep and at the opening nearly 20 feet high. The Twilight produced about 6,087 tons of ore from the 30,000 tons of material that was mined. The mineral list on mindat has 11 mineral species on it.
If you worked your way up the steep mountain toward the large opening below the cliffs you passed a number of smaller holes that went in a short way into the hill and accessed veins of ore. The dumps here were overgrown with vegetation but most of the hill was old dump material which had rolled down the hill from the mining above. Since the slope here was a North facing slope and didn't get a lot of direct sunlight the vegetation was fairly thick, covering the old dumps. I found a number of large rocks with mineralization and was able to collect a number of mineral species in the old dump material. The only purple fluorite I ever found in Bisbee came from the dumps of the Twilight and Higgins mines. The old chunks on the steep dump also contained stringers of chalcocite, malachite and other minerals. None were in anything but micro specimens but I did find a number of different minerals in this material.
When you got up to the Twilight Mine opening it was quite impressive and a lot of material had been worked out, leaving a large opening which one could explore. The large opening of the Twilight Mine went in about 40 or more feet and then tapered down to smaller tunnels going in various directions, following the ore veins. The base rock here was manganese and some of the dirtiest material to rummage around on. One couldn't stay clean clambering around in these holes. There was one vein of golden, flaky hematite at the West end of the large opening and it was quite soft. You could paint with the material using your finger and it was just like golden glitter.
Following the manganese vein along toward the East by the base of the limestone cliffs there were small animal trails that went around the rocks and then went up to some small shafts and diggings along the upper parts of the hill. Clambering around on this extremely steep terrain took a bit of skill and was not for someone who was not totally sure of oneself on steep and loose terrain. A fall here could lead to serious injury. But I was young and in good shape then and had no trouble. In my early days of living in Bisbee I was always on the lookout for various plants and insects. I found some unusual caterpillars on a plant right below the limestone cliffs. I took photos of the caterpillars and a moth expert friend asked where I had seen this caterpillar. Turns out he knew of the adult moth but had never seen the caterpillar or found their food plant. I took him to the place and he was very happy to document the find.
One black dump at the far end of the manganese vein system contained a number of interesting things. I found a bright green mineral on some of the black manganese chunks. Taking some home and studying it I found it to be conichalcite that was at the time of mining called higginsite The early thinking was it was a new mineral but later study determined it to be a slightly different crystal form of conichalcite. It is still called higginsite by some of the locals. This location produced the best and largest crystals of transparent green conichalcite I collected in Bisbee. I did find conichalcite elsewhere in the mines but the large crystals of the Twilight Mine were the nicest I found. There were several other minerals in the black ores here, braunite, pyrolusite, white baryte and more. The nicest piece of pyrolusite I collected in Bisbee came from these smaller dumps. One piece about fist size had wonderful bright silvery pyrolusite crystals.
One trip to this upper dump of the Twilight Mine I was working over pieces in the dump when I suddenly heard someone talking. I turned up to see Richard Graeme with a couple of friends come down from above to the same dump I was on. He stopped in surprise at seeing someone and as I looked up at him and he recognized me and a smile came to his face and we shook hands and talked for a bit and then went about our business of collecting. It was the only time in all the years in Bisbee, hiking to the various mines and exploring underground I ever ran into someone else. I know others went there too and underground as well but I just never ran into anyone until this one time. Fortunately it was someone I knew well and we were happy to see each other on the mountain. Richard had also said it was the only time he ever ran into anyone else on the hills above Bisbee. While exploring the underground in Bisbee I often found places where someone had been and in talking with Richard and his sons I found it was most likely from their visits to those spots. I found a few places where specimens had been set on rocks and presumed they had collected and taken only the ones they wanted and left the rest, possibly for the next trip. I did take them along since they had been left there. Since Richard worked for the mine as geologist he had unlimited access to the mines. Richard told me he had walked just about every tunnel under Bisbee that had been accessible.
Above the Twilight Mine upper workings it was not far to reach the top and Escabrosa ridge. I often went the short way to the top and then a bit to the East where I could sit and overlook the town of Bisbee, the canyon with the Shattuck Mine and the Lavender pit farther away. From here you could see about as far as New Mexico and way South into Mexico. It was a wonderful place to sit and eat lunch. After this I would return to pick up my pack at the mines to carry my load of collected material down to my home. Not far below the lookout on the ridge was a tall metal structure from the Sunrise Shaft or Golden Gate Claim. I ventured to it on several occasions and climbed the four story structure that was built on a very steep hill and this was the reason for the unusually tall hoist tower. The shaft was 734 feet deep and built to service the Southwest mine and had been started in 1919. At one time there had been a large cage which was the only cage large enough to accommodate mules into the mine. The tower is abandoned and the view from the top of the tower was great. At the top level were the remnants of the old hoist motor used to run the cage and the winding on the old electric motor was all in mica. I thought this quite interesting. From the closed off shaft you could feel the air blowing out from between the boards of the door. The tower is still visible while driving toward Bisbee past the Lavender pit. If you know where to look you can see the Sunrise Shaft structure on the hills.
On top of Escabrosa ridge I found a small depression in the limestone and at the bottom of this was a very green area of moss and ferns. The rest of the area was very dry and on moss. I climbed into the shallow area and from a 2x2 foot opening cold air blew out. I knew from previous experience that there was a cave below. There was no way into the area here without some work to remove a few jutting rocks but when I first found it the entrance was too narrow for entry. Opening the entrance a little on a later visit only allowed me to go about 15 feet into the ground and then the crack went under a huge section of limestone, only maybe a foot across with no way to gain access. The only memory of this side trip to the bottom of the hole was an old rifle cartridge from the days of the Cavalry. It had no markings on the end so no way to tell whether it was used by one of the soldiers who's cartridges normally had numbers and letters impressed on the back, to the Indians that had roamed the hills or one of the early prospectors. I still have the 1880's shell in my collection. While on one hike to these mine areas I also found an old pry bar the early miners had used to pry loose boulders after blasting in the tunnels. It was a 5 foot, octagonal steel bar that weighed about 22 pounds. It was quite old but the thickness of the steel had not worn too much of it away. I used this pry bar to dig many a tree hole. One friend stopped by and saw the old bar. I told him I used it for digging tree holes and he said I shouldn't use it because it was a very historic piece of equipment from the early days in Bisbee. I had to laugh since my years of using it had not done a bit of damage. In fact, the oils from my hands as I used it gave it a nice patina. This same pry bar is the one responsible for my only broken bone, a rib while trying to pry out a big piece of quartz on top of the Mule Mountains. The rock was wet from rain and the bar slipped as I pulled hard and smacked me right in the chest. The rib was cracked but not completely broken so the pry bar has a memory from my using it also.
One place in the Higgins Mine I found a mined out smaller chamber and at the sides of the chamber were fissures that went at a steep angle up into the rock at the sides of the chamber. These areas looked to me like they had been natural fractures where the rock had settled over time and left hollow areas that were now filled with calcite formations. I could see where the Graeme's had been working out specimens and on one trip I also found they had left a rock pick there. It had gotten a little rusty so I was sure it had been forgotten completely and I took it along. Good quality Estwing rock picks were not cheap and I used it for years. The smaller chambers I came across were ones that the mines had worked near and the material had all been damaged or broken. It was in these places I was able to collect calcite and aragonite without breaking any from the walls or ceilings. Richard had told me that there had been hundreds of these caves found in the mines under Bisbee and he wrote a book about the formation of these caves in association with the ore bodies that had been undergoing subsidence due to alteration of the ores from water that seeped in from above. I came across a number of these damaged smaller chambers and found nice specimens in them. The miners of the early days in Bisbee found that if they came across a cave they knew the ore was just below it and often the caves were totally destroyed to get to the ore beneath the cave. The big cave that is in the mine I took photos of was fortunately a good distance above the ores and was not disturbed in the mining of ores beneath it.
I had also seen in the large cave that there were large formations that had fallen from the ceiling in a few places but they had been re-cemented to the floor by more calcite. At the time I had assumed that the mining and blasting had broken them but much later I learned the reason was the earthquake not far away in Mexico in 1887. This was a much more likely reason the formations broke than the small shocks produced by the blasting from mining. The quake was estimated at 7.6 on the Richter scale and could easily have broken the formations. The shock waves from that quake had been felt and broke walls and windows as far away as Tucson and Bisbee was much closer.
There were several small tunnels that went into the mountain on the climb up the old dumps of the Twilight and one tunnel went a ways into the hill. Along the tunnel was a shaft that went down at a steep angle into the mountain. This spot was in the middle of the horizontal tunnel and without a light one could easily fall into this open shaft. A fall into this shaft would certainly have been fatal. The sides of this shaft were worn smooth by the tons and tons of ore that had been dumped down the shaft from the upper workings to horizontal tunnels below. Since the hill was so steep the early workers found it was much easier to dump ores from the upper mines down the shaft to waiting ore cars below. I later found the bottom of this shaft and it had the same worn sides. The shaft was dug to the lower Higgins Mine following ore veins and turned out to be an ideal way to move ore from above to the horizontal Higgins tunnel while the mining for manganese ores was taking place. As far as I could see, only the lower Higgins Mine had rails in the tunnels. None of the tunnels and shafts of the Twilight seemed to have had rails in them.
Entering the Higgins Mine was quite interesting. The first part was having to wade through the cold water until one was able to walk on dry ground just inside the tunnel. The mine still had rails in place and these went deep into the mountain. There were a few side tunnels that were blocked off with fresh wood to keep people out and later I found it was done by the people trying to open a cave tour into the mine. The tunnel went into the mountain straight for quite a ways until it bent to the East and just past this bend was where the shaft from above came in to transfer ores from the upper levels to the the Higgins tunnel. A few more side tunnels went off from the main tunnel and I explored many of them. There were quite a few areas that had large rooms mined out and in a few of them I found native copper and other minerals. One special find was in one small side tunnel off of a big mined out room. There was a foot long blue soda straw like formation hanging down from a crack. Seems there was copper mineralization above and the material had been carried down by dripping water and deposited as a blue formation. The long blue piece was not a solid color but banded in multi shades of blue. I think this was probably chalcanthite and I didn't remove it for this reason, the chalcanthite was not stable in the outside air. I had been given a foot long and bright blue chalcanthite stalactite by my next door neighbor, who worked underground. It took only a few days and the piece started turning to a white powder.
There were recently built wooden platforms that went across shafts that went straight down but after a few years these untreated lumber areas rotted away. This one spot had a shaft that was larger than the tunnel and went straight down to the levels below and would have been impossible to cross if not for the several water lines that ran along the tunnels. After the wood fell away the only way across was by walking on the 4 inch old water line and it was nice there was a smaller line up high which one could hold onto with ones hand. By bracing ones hand on the nearby wall and holding the upper line it was easy to cross by this still strong metal pipe. There were a number of side tunnels here and I explored many of them. One area had a shaft go up at a steep angle and ladders had been put in. At the early time I came into the mine these were all in good shape and it was easy to climb up the two levels to the huge cave in the mine. It was the most spectacular find I ever made in my exploring of the Bisbee mines. In later years the wet nature of the mines rotted out the lumber and ladders, making ones way into the mine was quite a bit harder then. The ladders also were completely gone and it was no longer possible without equipment to get to the cave.
It was at the place the ladders went up that there was a different tunnel that had the old timbers the rail ran on still in place. My biological background came into play here. This was hundreds of yards into the mine from the surface and in total darkness. I saw there was a lot of mold on the old lumber but I saw something else as well, spider webs. This was strange and I bent down to look. Sure enough there were tiny spiders living on the lumber. I had a friend who studied spiders and I took him there to show him the spiders I had found. He gathered a few and after studying them found they were the first time this particular blind cave spider had ever been reported in the United States. He even wrote an article in a spider journal about his find. The spiders lived on tiny flies that were attracted to the mold growing on the wood. The flies ate the mold and the spiders ate the flies, a small eco system right there under the mountain in Bisbee. What I don't know is if the spiders were there before the mines, living in the caves and the mines had just allowed them to spread since they had left wood to mold after the mines closed.
I found out a number of years later that someone had contracted with the Phelps Dodge company to try and open up the large cave as a tour but it was done on a shoestring and as I had said, they used untreated lumber and the damp and mold of the mine quickly rotted out the wood. I had wondered about why there was so much new lumber in the mine but since I was sneaking into the mine at the time I was not open about asking people about what was going on in the Higgins Mine. The whole venture was short lived and I don't know if they stopped because of running out of funding or the Phelps Dodge company had second thoughts. The cave, which is technically into the property of the Southwest Mine, is the best cave I have ever been in. I have seen many caverns with wonderful cave formations but this one room that was as large as a school auditorium and totally covered in cave formation was the nicest I had ever seen. The cave is a live cave and all the formations on the ceiling are still dripping water. It is one sound you can still hear when sitting very still, the dripping of the water. It was in very good shape and little had been broken or damaged. I was very careful to walk only in places other had been, presumably miners of the earl time. Off of this main room were smaller rooms and one dropped down into a small chamber that one could just fit into. The floor was a smooth flowstone and the walls and ceiling were completely covered in several inch long crystals of aragonite and calcite so delicate one wanted to hold ones breath. The temptation to touch was great but knowing how delicate the material was I was happy to see very few had done so. This room had very little damage fortunately. Another small room off one side went around a corner and there was a pool of water with formations growing in the water toward the surface. At a different place in underground Bisbee I had found formations that had been broken from the mining and some calcite growth that was very odd, just like the growing crystals I had seen in the pool. Seeing the nearly finger like top growth of the calcite where it reached the air at the surface in the pool of water let me see how some of the pieces I had come across in the broken parts of the mine had formed. Since the calcite could no longer keep forming up after they reached the surface of the pool, the crystals had grown to the sides in what looked like a group of fingers at the top of a single calcite rod. Past this pool were two places that went farther on. One went down into a very narrow crack and it was not possible to enter here. I could feel the air movement but couldn't check it out. The other was a three foot by two foot hole in the one wall with formations of small columns blocking any passage. One could feel a lot of air going into this hole and it was tempting to break the formations and see what was around the next corner but I had a rule, never break off any of the formations in the cave and stuck to it. To this day I wonder if other even more spectacular rooms lay just around the corner. I did go back one time with my camera and took a series of photos of the cavern. This same cavern was shown in the 1981 Mineralogical Record issue on Bisbee. The photos I have posted on the Southwest Mine page in Bisbee are from the photos I took on this one trip with the camera. In the early years in Bisbee I thought since my way to the cavern was through the Higgins Mine that the cave was in the Higgins but I found out from Doug Graeme where the mine properties actually changed underground and the cave was actually part of the Southwest Mine. Doug had access to the actual maps of the underground tunnels and where one mine property changed to the next, I never had access to those maps.
One side tunnel of the Higgins Mine went deep into the mountain and was quite straight and long. One could easily make time down this tunnel since it was dug through very solid limestone and there was little debris on the floor. The tunnel was tall enough no stooping was necessary going down it. I often said that it was the most solid tunnel I had been in my wandering under Bisbee. I think this tunnel had been dug to access the deeper mines from the Higgins Mine side. This tunnel went deep into the mountain and at one spot smelled like sulphur and it was the pyrite along the walls that was slowly decomposing. The pyrite seam was not wide, only a few feet but the decomposing material had some nice solid crystals in places. In this area I found the best loose crystals of pyrite I found in my years in Bisbee. Just past this spot was a small chamber off to the side and I believe it had been used to store explosives for the mining. Just past this was a shaft that was timbered well and had at one time been used for an cage to transport men and equipment into the lower levels. Just past this the tunnel opened up into a huge room. Right at the side I stood in was a timbered rail line that went to the lower levels at a steep angle along one wall of the chamber. Here was also a walkway for people. This was all in very good shape and no rotting of the timbering had taken place here. I worked my way down to the lower level. Here was a very large room with a floor that was slightly above the tunnels at the sides. At the sides of the large chamber were tunnels leading off into various parts of the mine. Many were collapsed and looked too dangerous to enter. The main tunnels leading away from this large room were filled with about 3 to 4 feet of tea colored water. One could shine ones light down and see the tunnels kept going. I was tempted to get into the tunnels water and see where it went but not being able to see the bottom of the tunnel through the murky water stopped me from even considering this. The other problem was the temperature of the water was very cold and wading along tunnels up to ones armpits in cold water was quite dangerous. One missed shaft in the bottom of the tunnel and one could easily drown. In the water, from the sides of the tunnel were long crystals of gypsum growing into the water. Years later I found out that just through this water filled tunnel was the Shattuck Mine, a mine I always wanted to explore. Too late now, I no longer live in Bisbee and the access as far as I know has been completely blocked to entry. It was funny that so much later I found out I had actually walked the tunnels from one side of a mountain to the other, underground.
One side tunnel had a spot with water coming in from a crack in the ceiling and it ran quite a bit of water along the tunnel wall that had deposited a thick white layer of calcite. Someone had positioned an old ore car under this spot on the rails that were still in the mine tunnel. On top of the ore car had been placed a metal sheet which touched the tunnel wall where the water ran down, letting the water run over the ore car and sheet of metal on top of it. There were a number of things placed on top of the sheet of metal, old pipe, screws, nut and bolts. All of the ore car and objects on top of the metal were completely covered in half an inch or more of white calcite. The objects had been completely cemented to the sheet of metal by calcite. I talked to Richard Graeme and he said this tunnel had been closed in 1940 and it was about 1980 when I found the spot and the thick calcite had grown over everything in only about 40 years. At the time I assumed the deposition of calcite in caves took place over hundreds of years or maybe thousands but in this case it showed me that in cases of very mineralized water that was more than just a drip once in a while, deposition was much faster. I had always thought this calcite covered mine car would make a fantastic object to display in a museum but getting it out of the mine would be a major undertaking, not to mention the permission needed to do this.
My years in Bisbee ended in 1986 when I moved out of Bisbee to a town about 50 miles away. I go back to Bisbee often to visit my old home and see friends. I often think back on the times I ventured underground in Bisbee and climbed the hills on the sides of the canyon. One trip into the Higgins Mine to take a friend to see the cave was a bit of an adventure. The friend had a fear of tight places and when he saw the 3 foot hole one had to wiggle through at the entrance from the dirt that had blocked much of the entrance to the Higgins tunnel, he balked. I went in and said to him to shine his light in to see where I was standing in an open tunnel and just to come down to me. If it was too much it would only take seconds for him to be right back outside. He did as I asked and when he stood up and saw the long open tunnel leading into the mine and not a tiny closed off room he felt much better and the adventure continued. After seeing the cave and getting back outside he said it was the best experience he had ever had and said he was so glad I made him do that first little climb into the terror hole at the entrance.
In my years of exploring underground in Bisbee I always used caution in where I went and was never careless with the dangers of the underground mines. My experiences were always safe and I never felt in danger. There were places I saw I didn't enter since the mines didn't look safe and many places I wanted to see I didn't because it was not safe. I found several calcite bird nests that I had only seen in museums and they were in various places in the mine tunnels. I had always meant to go back and get one but never did. I saw sights few have been able to see and have wonderful memories of those trips underground in Bisbee.

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Cool wanderings, Rolf! DKJ

David K. Joyce
11th Nov 2017 2:00pm

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