(The last time we visited Clifton it was essentially a ghost town. So, when we heard that Mike Anderson, a Bisbee historian, was headed to Clifton, we asked him to write an update story for us. Thanks, Mike!)
Clifton and Morenci – Old and new copper towns in the Copper Mountain Mining District
Copper mining has been one of the major linchpins of Arizona’s economy since the late 19th Century, when mines capable of producing a steady and profitable stream of the red metal popped up all over southern Arizona. Rude camps of prospectors grew around those mines and, if the ore held out, evolved into larger, more permanent communities, attracting workers from all over the United States, Mexico, Europe and China.
Some of those towns, such as Courtland in Cochise County, were short-lived and quickly became ghost towns. Others, such as Jerome in Yavapai County, lasted for more than half a century, becoming sizeable cities before their mines were exhausted of ore and their miners left for greener pastures. Some, such as Bisbee, with larger, longer-lasting ore bodies, thrived for a century or longer before their orebodies gave out.
A few fortunate copper-producing Arizona communities, such as Globe, Bagdad, and Morenci, have continued to survive into the 21st century. Others, like Bisbee, have reinvented themselves as tourist venues.
Two of those copper-producing towns – Clifton and Morenci – are located in rural and remote Greenlee County, far from Arizona’s major metropolitan areas.
Clifton, the county seat of Greenlee County, is one of Arizona’s earliest surviving copper camps. Founded in 1872 along the San Francisco River, not many miles west of New Mexico, Clifton is a living history museum for southern Arizona’s copper industry. Its neighborhoods, filled with old homes and commercial buildings dating back to the late 19th and early 20th century are constrained by geography, following the San Francisco River and its tributary, Chase Creek.
Looming cliffs frame Clifton and the narrow river valley. Named for Saint Francis, the San Francisco is usually tame and slow-moving. On occasion, however, when floodwaters pour out of the mountains feeding into it, the San Francisco turns into a raging torrent, taking down homes and commercial buildings, ripping out roads and railroad tracks. Massive steel floodgates constructed along Arizona State Route 191 bisect the town and stand ready to protect south Clifton from further flooding. North Clifton has no such barrier and is naked to future flooding, which is a matter of “when” rather than “if.”
Clifton’s principal commercial district follows Chase Creek, the small stream feeding into the San Francisco. Several blocks of brick buildings that were formerly stores, saloons, restaurants and lodge halls have mostly stood vacant since the last disastrous flood in October 1983. A few have been converted into museums or shops catering to the occasional tourists who find their way into town.
Although the underground mines and smelters that once served Clifton are long gone, a huge open-pit copper mine looms hundreds of feet above the river valley. Morenci, which was once a near-twin of Clifton, is now a modern company town, resembling a military base much more than it does its neighbor below.
Before the 1960s when the open pit was expanded, Morenci consisted of homes and commercial buildings clinging to mountainsides that had been constructed in the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries. In appearance, old Morenci bore a strong resemblance to Bisbee. And like several of the neighborhoods in Bisbee, Old Morenci perished in the 1960s, 70s and 80s when the Phelps Dodge Corporation decided to develop the massive low-grade ore bodies under the old town’s surface.
A brief history of Clifton and Morenci
Prospectors from Silver City found the first copper ore in the San Francisco River valley in 1870. At the time, the discovery was considered to be too remote to be profitable and industrial uses for copper had not yet become crucial to the modern world. Those conditions soon changed, however. The passage of the 1872 Mining Act and the discovery of practical applications for electrical energy made copper in remote Arizona a much more desirable commodity.
In 1872, mining claims were staked a few miles north of present-day Clifton and the Detroit Mining Company was formed. The area surrounding the claims, located in the hills and mountains above and around Chase Creek, was designated as the Copper Mountain Mining District. A primitive mining and smelting camp along the San Francisco River was founded which was officially named Clifton in 1875. Another camp, located above the river and chase creek, was first called Joy’s Camp and later renamed Morenci. The origin of the name is not clear.
Several profitable underground mines were quickly developed. In 1881, Dr. James Douglas, a geologist, theologian, and medical doctor, examined the mines in the Copper Mountain Mining District for Phelps, Dodge & Co., a New York-based trading company looking for investment opportunities. Based on Dr. Douglas’ favorable recommendations, Phelps Dodge became a partner with the Detroit Mining Company.
In 1882, Scottish investors purchased the Longfellow mine above Clifton and established the Arizona Copper Company. Phelps Dodge’s holdings in the district continued to grow until, in 1921, PD purchased the Arizona Copper Company and became the sole operator in the district.
Railroads soon connected Clifton and Morenci with the outside world. Both towns and nearby communities such as Metcalf went through periodic episodes of boom and bust, as copper prices fell and rose.
Mining operations shut down during the peak of the Great Depression in 1932, but resumed in 1937 when preparations began to develop the massive low-grade copper orebodies buried underneath and near Old Morenci. Underground mining in both communities ended when the higher-grade orebodies gave out, but the massive open-pit grows in size each year. (-jg. Approx. 72 square miles) Now, the Morenci Mine operated by Freeport McMoRan (which absorbed the Phelps Dodge Corporation in 2007) is the largest mining operation in North America. More than 4,000 men and women work at the mine, mill, and electrowinning plant, which turns out massive amounts of copper cathodes for industrial use.
The two communities were periodically plagued with traumatic events – both manmade and natural. Miners went on strike – the most notable work stoppages taking place in 1903, 1915-16 and 1983 – for higher wages and better working conditions. Sometimes the unionized miners were successful in securing their demands. On other occasions, they were not. The strike in 1983, crushed by the Arizona Department of Safety and the National Guard – led to the decertification of labor unions at the Morenci mine.
Floods also ravage Clifton from time to time. Although normally placid, heavy rains in the mountains to the north and east of Clifton turn the San Francisco River into a raging, fast-flowing torrent, causing it to overflow its banks and carry away homes, commercial buildings and other structures. The worst floods took place in 1891, 1903, 1906 and 1983. Today, levees and massive floodgates protect south Clifton, but north Clifton remains open to the whimsical ravages of Mother Nature.
The population of Clifton peaked in 1970 at 5,087. Old Morenci’s population, combined with that of Metcalf above it, rivaled Clifton’s, but when mining became less labor-intensive, the need for workers fell. Today, Morenci’s population is approximately 1,500 while Clifton’s stands at about 3,700. Many mining employees commute from Safford or other communities in the area.
A number of Clifton’s businesses closed after the twin traumas of flood and strike pummeled the town in 1983. The primary commercial center is now located in Morenci’s modern shopping center, A pair of chain “dollar stores” operate in Clifton. The company-owned Phelps Dodge Mercantile in Morenci was replaced in the mid-1990s by a Basha’s supermarket. Several other retail stores, including a hardware store, provide limited shopping in Morenci.
Lodging is available at the Morenci Motel, the Clifton Hotel, the Rode Inn and the Clifton RV Park, located near the river in north Clifton.
Restaurants – all mom and pop – can be found in both Clifton and Morenci. It’s wise to check at the visitors’ center in Clifton or with locals as to what’s currently open and hours of operation.
Things to see and do in and around Clifton and Morenci
The two communities by themselves are tourist attractions in very different ways. Clifton’s three principal neighborhoods – south Clifton, north Clifton and Chase Creek – are all within easy walking and driving distance of any local lodging. South Clifton has the historic Greenlee County Courthouse, built in 1911, as well as many blocks of homes built before or during the same period.
Driving or walking along Park Street on the east side of the San Francisco provides an up-close look at the sheer cliffs that loom over the river and town. Houses perch precariously on most buildable slopes. Traveling north on Park Street paralleling the river’s bank from south Clifton, visitors will quickly reach a point where the cliffs reach almost to the river. Here there is barely enough level ground for a road.
On the opposite bank of the San Francisco, between north and south Clifton, sits a large mansion known as the Carmichael House and built in 1914 by the Arizona Copper Company to house its president. Although empty, it is well-maintained by Freeport McMorAn.
North Clifton is the oldest part of town, dating back to the 1870s. Thanks to the occasional catastrophic flood, the neighborhood has a lot of open space, some of which has been converted to parking lots and municipal parks. Among the things to see in north Clifton are the Henry Lesinsky house, which dates back to the early 1870s and is believed to be the oldest surviving residence in the community, a large shovel that was used for mining but now only serves as an artifact of bygone days, the old Clifton town offices and the Clifton Hotel. The hotel, a two-story building, dates back to 1890. Originally known as the Central Hotel, it was badly damaged during the 1983 flood. In 2017, Matt and Karen Frye purchased the building and began remodeling it. Renamed the Clifton Hotel, it is again open for business and its bar is a popular gathering point for locals and visitors.
A one-lane bridge over the San Francisco connects North Clifton to the west side of the river and State Route 191. On the west side of the San Francisco is the American Legion Hall, which in past days served as a company store for Phelps Dodge and before that, the Arizona Copper Company. Across State Route 191 from the Zorilla Street bridge are the former office building for the Arizona Copper Company and the old Clifton jail, which was built into the solid rock of the cliffs.
A short distance to the south is the old Clifton railroad depot, which currently serves as a space for artists and the community’s visitors center. To the north and west is the neighborhood of Chase Creek, which parallels the watercourse for which it’s named. This was where Clifton’s principal commercial district was once located. Once raucous and rowdy, today Chase Creek is eerily quiet.
As is the case in many old mining towns in Arizona, most of Chase Creek’s stores and saloons were constructed after the last disastrous fire – which took place in 1912. The narrow street is fronted by several blocks of brick storefronts – most of which are either empty or only for occasional use. Several shops catering to tourists open for business on weekends. The Union Hall, last operated by the Steelworkers, is now a combination art museum and residence. Among its many art objects is a large mural created by Tucson artist David Tineo commemorating the divisive, and from the standpoint of the union, disastrous strike of 1983. The Greenlee County Historical Society maintains a museum in the Chase Creek district. Full of historic photographs and artifacts, the museum offers a comprehensive look at the glory days of Clifton and old Morenci.
About three miles above Clifton is modern Morenci. Almost nothing remains of the old town, which was consumed by the expansion of the open-pit mine in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. New Morenci is a company-owned and operated town. Businesses in the town’s shopping center lease their space from the mining company, as does the county library and the clinic. Housing is all company-owned and resembles that found on a military installation. Nothing in the residential and commercial parts of new Morenci could be described as scenic. It’s the town’s massive industrial plant, which boggles the mind and staggers the imagination, that make the trip uphill on the Coronado trail to Morenci worthwhile.
The pit and the dumps containing the overburden excavated to reach the copper ore are some of the largest in the world. A massive plant turns the ore into almost-pure copper cathodes, ready for industrial use. The state highway passes directly through the mining operation, giving motorists a bird’s eye view of giant trucks, shovels and other vehicles used to excavate and transport the copper-bearing rock. From a safe distance, they appear to be toys. Close up, they are as immense as motor vehicles can be.
Freeport McMoRan maintains a turn-off and self-guided interpretive station for viewing the pit and learning about the process of mining copper. Bighorn sheep are a common sight in and around Morenci.
To the north of Morenci is the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway, a 97-mile-long twisting two-lane road that ends at the tiny town of Alpine. Between Morenci and Alpine is seemingly-endless forest, chain after chain of rugged mountains, and other than the highway itself, little sign of human presence (except for a scattering of campgrounds and ranches) to disturb the spectacular natural beauty. Wildlife abounds and motorists should keep a sharp eye out for elk, deer, bighorn sheep and other critters crossing the highway.
For those seeking a shorter drive that still offers beautiful scenery, there is a six-mile drive northeast from the Zorilla Street bridge in north Clifton that parallels the San Francisco River.
Although far from metropolitan Tucson and Phoenix, Clifton and Morenci are well worth the time and effort to pay a visit. They offer spectacular scenery and a look at Arizona’s copper industry, past and present. Friendly people and the intimate small-town lifestyle that can’t be found in big cities combine to make a trip to Greenlee County memorable and pleasant.