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Updated: Nov 23, 2023


two smoke stacks bellowing smoke
Phelps Dodge Smelter in Douglas, AZ.

Copper Smelter Inception and Establishment

In the early 20th century, Douglas, Arizona, emerged as a crucial site for copper smelting, primarily to process ores from the nearby Bisbee mines. Named in honor of Dr. James Douglas, a prominent figure in the mining industry, Douglas was formally established in 1905. It hosted two primary smelters: the Calumet and Arizona Company Smelter, built in 1902, and the Copper Queen, operational from 1904 until its closure in 1931.

Building the Industry

The Calumet and Arizona Mining Company, established in 1901, played a pivotal role in the development and operation of these smelters. This company, known for its significant contributions to mining in Arizona, was instrumental in setting up a modern smelting plant in Douglas by 1914, boosting both production and efficiency.

Transition from Bisbee

The shift of smelting operations from Bisbee to Douglas was driven by a change in the mining landscape. By the 1890s, the mines in Bisbee, particularly the Copper Queen, were transitioning from oxide to sulfide ores. This shift necessitated a change in smelting technology, and the existing facilities in Bisbee were not equipped to handle the new ore type efficiently. Consequently, a decision was made to establish a new, more capable smelting facility in Douglas, which commenced operations in 1904.

Railway magnate and metallurgist James Douglas stepped in at this point, introducing more efficient fuels to replace timber. This strategy not only saved the forests but also significantly boosted production. However, an increase in the sulfur content of the ore resulted in toxic smelter smoke, posing health risks and leading to the death of vegetation.

Douglas' solution was to relocate the smelter, navigating around the obstacles created by land speculators. His chosen destination was a location 23 miles southeast, near the Mexico border. The result of this move was the establishment of the City of Douglas, featuring a vibrant community and a second smelter, thanks to the Calumet & Arizona (C&A) Company.

Corporate Mergers and Evolution

A significant event in the history of the Douglas smelters was the merger of the Calumet and Arizona Mining Company with Phelps-Dodge Corporation in 1931. This merger resulted in the consolidation of smelting operations in Douglas, leading to the closure of the Copper Queen Smelter and the renaming of the Calumet and Arizona facility to the Douglas Reduction Works.

Closure and Legacy

The smelter remained a central part of Douglas’s economy for many decades. However, in 1987, due to environmental regulations, the smelter was shut down. The dismantling of its iconic smokestacks in 1991 marked the end of an era for the city.

Modern Douglas

Today, Douglas has diversified its economic base. It has grown into a hub for cattle raising and farming, benefiting from its location as a port of entry on the Mexican border.

Despite these measures, smelter smoke continued to color the Bisbee skies with shades of gray, brown, and orange until the 1990s, a real-life testament to the challenges of the copper industry. Through our Historic Bisbee Tour, we offer a raw and candid view into this industry, its environmental implications, and the unwavering resilience of the people who have lived in its shadow. Our ultimate goal is to help you develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of Bisbee's distinct heritage.

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