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Bisbee’s mighty tug of war

Crowds surround tug-of-war contestants near Bisbee’s Brewery Saloon in 1900. A team can be seen pulling, with the anchor man at the back of the line. (Photo courtesy of the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum)

In December 1903, handbills began appearing around Bisbee announcing a mighty tug-of-war competition. Tug-of-war was popular in the early 1900s, particularly in the rough and ready mining towns of the West, where a man’s strength and brawn was a measure of his success.

A battle could last for hours. Teams lined up on either side of a center mark. A ladder-like device with cleats was placed on the ground, and the team members lay on their sides with their feet gripping the cleats as they pulled across the mark. The last man on each side sat at the back of the line as the anchor.

Four teams — Irish, Swedes, Bisbee miners and a group from Globe — signed on to compete in the contest. Later the Globe contingent dropped out and was replaced by a Slovenian team. Since ethnic rivalry ran high and legal gambling flourished in Bisbee, it was no surprise that a lot of cash was wagered.

The night before the contest, the Bisbee Daily Review reported “the Annex (Saloon) was jammed with the friends of the contestants, and a bet of $100 that the Irish would win was snapped up in a minute. Another bet of $50 was made that the Swedes (would) out-pull the Slavs. No event in Bisbee has caused so much betting and excitement as this tug-of-war.”

The Review described the first match which pitted the Irish team against the Swedes:

“For the first 30 minutes it was nip and tuck, with no advantage. During the next 30 minutes the boys with the light hair gained a little, and at the expiration of one hour and 20 minutes had 18 inches of rope belonging to the Irish on their side of the line, and Hanson, the big Swede anchor, announced that he would be in that position when the call came for breakfast. Then the tide began to turn. The Irish responded to every call by their captain, and with superhuman efforts, cleat by cleat, they pulled away from the Swedes. At the expiration of one hour and 45 minutes, with the last cleat gained, the Irish had won the first contest.”

The next teams to compete were the Slovenians and the Bisbee miners’ team. The Slovenians defeated the Bisbee team in just 20 minutes. All teams returned the next evening, but there was disagreement over the order of events. The Review said “…for a time bedlam was turned loose, and all four nationalities seemed to be talking at once.” No deal could be brokered, and the tournament was called off.

Later that week, two friends, one Irish and one Slovenian, met at a local saloon. The discussion fell upon the best tug-of-war team, and the Slovenian produced $1,000, putting his money where his mouth was. The Irishman placed a few telephone calls, made rounds of other drinking establishments and returned with cash to cover the bet.

The men signed a written agreement detailing the terms of the match: the prize would be $2,000 plus gate receipts after expenses, and the winner would take all; the distance to be pulled would be

36 inches from center; expenses could not exceed $100 and all claims had to be turned in at the box office on the night of the match; a $250 forfeit would be posted with the promoter, and the remainder of the money would be deposited at the Bank of Bisbee.

On the night of the match, crowds filled the Opera House. Special officers kept people away from the cleats and a betting window opened with the Review estimating that more than $5,000 exchanged hands during the evening.

The Review described the scene:

“… (a) good natured crowd that jostled against the ropes and hurled jests and cat calls…. (A) group of ladies were eager witnesses of all of the preliminaries … and were more than once on their feet cheering….  All classes were represented. The merchant stood in line with the laborer for three hours, and the banker elbowed the knight of the green cloth….

“At 9:01, referee Jack Taylor fired the starting gun and, quick as a flash, the Slavs had taken up the slack and had four or five inches to their credit.

“At 9:20, the Slavs made their main effort and… gathered in about

10 more inches of the hemp….  At the expiration of the first hour, the Slavs had 20 inches… (but)… at the two-hour mark, the Irish regained the first cleat they had lost … and bedlam was turned loose. Slowly but surely those powerful backs, arms and legs were brought into action, and cleat by cleat the Slavs were dragged across the mark….  At exactly 11:54, the last cleat was gained, and the noise that broke loose was deafening!”

Jubilant Irish fans and the team let loose a volley of yells, whistles, hugs and backslapping, but sportsmanship reigned and no disrespect was tossed on the losers. The Review reported, “It is doubtful if there ever was in the history of tug-of-war contests a more determined team of winners. It is certain there never were better losers… Be it said to their credit that not once did the losing team show the white feather. Sick at heart and sore in body, they never gave a cleat without a show of struggle….”

— Tom Vaughan. Photo courtesy of the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum.

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