One hundred years ago in 1917, one of the most egregious actions by a corporation took place in Arizona. In the midst of America’s involvement in WWI, copper mining was at an all-time high. Miners were striking throughout Arizona for better wages and conditions. They brought in the “Wobblies”, aggressive Union organizers. As a result, over 1200 mineworkers were rounded up, quarantined in Warren Ballpark, and deported to New Mexico. A similar event had taken place days earlier in Jerome, AZ. Bisbee ’17 is a historical novel by UA Director of Creative Writing Robert Houston about the Bisbee Deportation.
These days, the good people of Bisbee don’t talk about the deportation. One hundred years later, it has been relegated to the history books. No one who lived through the deportation is left to recall, although I am sure there are relatives who remember the stories. The Queen Mine is no longer an active mining operation. The old miners, who worked these mines now welcome visitors to the Queen Mine with their own stories. Southern Arizona Guide has a video of one of these miners. This is Pete’s story. You can learn about the Queen Mine Tours here.
July 12, 1917, left a bitter taste in Fred Watson’s mouth for the rest of his life. He spoke to Robert Houston in 1977 shortly before Watson’s death and the publication of Houston’s book in 1979. His wife, the daughter of a Phelps Dodge clerk, wanted him to forget the whole thing.
“She’s for peace at any price,” Watson said. “You can’t get her to talk about it. She says, ‘Fritz’ – she calls me Fritz – ‘that’s 60 years ago. Why don’t you forget it?’
“I’ll forget it when I die. I’ll forget it when I die!” Watson said. “None of those who took part in this event, however unwittingly, could forget it.” Read Fred Watson’s recollection of the events here.
For all of the recent touting that “Bisbee is a great small town to live in”, Bisbee still carries blue-collar / white-collar scars. Ones that they are trying to erase. Tourism is hot. The 4th of July Celebration is still one of the biggest events of the year, with old-time baseball at the Warren Ballpark and the famous coaster races down Tombstone Canyon.
In the page of Acknowledgments, Mr. Houston indicates that he had interviewed several people who remember the day including Fred Watson. Much of his information comes from the historical archives of the Arizona Historical Society and the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum. From the brief accounts that I have read, the facts of this historical fiction are well documented. The Arizona Memory Project has now digitized much of this documentation.
Bisbee ’17 is well written, although it left me wanting more background. Bisbee ’17 describes one possible scenario. The historical events are real enough, the main characters real. The human interactions are what are “imagined”, as in: Imagine what it would have been like in this time. When I started reading the book, I had a general knowledge of the events surrounding the Bisbee Deportation. As I read the book, I found myself searching for the people introduced in the book and their histories.
The Bisbee Deportation was declared illegal by the Federal Government. Proceedings were initiated, over 200 people arrested or indicted, including Walter P. Douglas, President of Phelps Dodge Mining Corporation. Nothing ever came of it at the Federal or State level. Only one case ever went to trial.
No one is left who was there. Descendants of those deported come to Bisbee to research their family members. It was not a moment to be proud of, but it is a moment to remember, perhaps as a cautionary tale against a similar event in the future.
Buy the book Bisbee ’17. It will leave you wanting to know more. Hardcore historians might scoff. Where I find history generally dry, I find the human part, even if imagined, more colorful. The character development may be a bit lacking but it still brings history to life. I find myself wondering if Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, really carried on an affair with Bo Whitley and whether that is recorded history or just imagination. Stay tuned. I am intrigued. More to come. -Ms. Karen