Clifton, Arizona and Chase Creek
Lonely Copper Town
By Michael Kaufman
Arizona is full of former mining towns oriented towards tourists: Tombstone, Bisbee, Jerome and Goldfield. While these towns do offer visitors to the Grand Canyon State an accessible introduction to the state’s mining history, some people might feel jaded wandering around in towns full of antique shops, expensive restaurants, and souvenir shops. Large crowds might also turn off other visitors. Fortunately, there are other towns that are not tourist-oriented and may offer a more authentic mining-camp experience. One such place is Clifton, Arizona.
Like the more famous Jerome and Bisbee, Clifton is a town that, throughout most of its history, was supported by copper mining. Unlike those towns, mining remains an important part of the local economy, with the open pit mine in Morenci still in operation. Clifton is not a town that is heavily dependent on tourism for its survival, and does not have a large number or artists in residence, as do Jerome and Bisbee.
In spite of these differences, first-time visitors may find much in Clifton that is similar to the more tourist-oriented copper towns; for instance, the town is set within a canyon, offering a natural setting as beautiful as that of other former copper mining towns. The town’s historic district is also well preserved; most of the old buildings remain along a narrow street named after a waterway paralleling it: Chase Creek. The town has a worn and faded look to it; few of the buildings have been refurbished, and most look like they’re slowly crumbling. Still, there is a certain appeal to decrepit buildings that is lost when they’re fully restored; this aesthetic even has a name: “elegant decay” (the term is mainly applied to the centuries-old mansions of Venice, Italy).
I was spurred to visit Clifton after reading a blog by photographer Andrea Gibbons. She expresses an admiration for Clifton’s unpolished appeal, waxing rhapsodic about the town’s “opulence of decay” and her “love for the derelict.” Her photos and written descriptions of Chase Creek were certainly evocative, and they inspired me to see this town for myself.
In a sense, Clifton’s rough, scarred appearance is appropriate, as it, along with its companion town Morenci, share a tumultuous history involving tough, hardworking miners and volatile labor unrest. The area’s copper lodes were discovered in the 1870s, but they were not fully developed until the next decade, when the transcontinental railroad—in the form of the Southern Pacific—arrived in Arizona, making transportation costs cheaper for the mining companies. The arrival of the railroad coincided with the start of electrification in American industry. Copper proved a useful metal for communications cables, and Arizona had the metal in abundance. Advances in mining technology coincided with increased consolidation; by the early twentieth century the Phelps Dodge conglomerate, headquartered in New York City, controlled Clifton-Morenci’s mines.
While Clifton was not a company town, Morenci, located several miles up hill, was. The company rented houses to its workers and provided them with all of their recreational facilities. As the open pit mine in Morenci widened, the old town had to give way. The current version of Morenci dates from the 1960s. Clifton-Morenci’s miners comprised a variety of ethnicities, including Italian and Slavic; most were Mexican immigrants or Mexican-American. The company imposed a dual wage system based on race, where Mexican miners were paid less for the same work than their Anglo counterparts. Tight company control and the dual wage system resulted in a strike in 1903, which required the involvement of the National Guard. Clifton-Morenci underwent more turbulent strikes in 1916 and 1983. Clifton today retains an important role as the seat of Greenlee County.
Clifton is located along U.S. Highway 191, north of its junction with Highway 70 east of Safford. The drive from the junction to Clifton follows a dramatically changing landscape, from vast green fields of cotton to barren wastes and precipitous, narrow mesas. The terrain seems like the perfect setting for a Western movie; indeed, this region was once the heart of the Chiricahua Apache homeland. Dark blackish-red lava hills puncture the earth like a cat’s claws tearing into its prey’s flesh. The desert floor is studded with green shrubs. The Clifton city limits extend into undeveloped land. Midway through the town, the visitor will see a giant concrete floodgate standing beside the highway, a reminder of the volatility of the San Francisco River during periods of heavy rains.
If you are driving north from Safford, Chase Creek is located to the left of the main highway.
When I last visited Clifton, it was a broiling hot late afternoon in August. Chase Creek was virtually deserted, save for a few motorcyclists who briefly stopped on their way north. The silence was broken only by the fizz and crackle of electricity coursing through the tangle of wires suspended above the street. Chase Creek is mostly straight, lined on both sides with brick buildings clustered together. The narrowness of the street lends it the air of a medieval town lane. As I mentioned above, most of the buildings are unrestored and crumbling. The commercial district suggests not so much the Wild West as an Appalachian patch town. The buildings’ decrepit appearance is ironic, as many feature elegant designs: for instance, the most prominent structures feature fancy cornices lined with baroque filigree. One of these structures, formerly an Eagles’ Aerie, is now home to the Greenlee County Museum. Next door are the ruins of a former movie theater, now comprised of a series of bright, white arches set against a crumbling foundation.
Of special note is the former union hall for the United Steelworkers Local 616. This local figured prominently during the strike of 1983 to 1986. The name of the union remains painted on the window in bright yellow, the colors not the least bit faded by time.
At the northern end of Chase Creek is the town’s elegant Catholic church. The crest above the front door is designed in the Mission style, and the front facade looks to be made of large boulders of lava. It reminded of pictures I saw of some of the missions in Baja California, which were made of lava rock. It is not a fancy church, but it is nonetheless beautiful in its simplicity.
Many fascinating buildings remain south of Chase Creek itself. The most intriguing is the “cliff jail”, a penitentiary carved from the side of the cliff overlooking Highway 191. A hollow lined with metal bars marks the location of the jail. Standing beside the jail is a small yet sturdy-looking steam locomotive, “Copper Head”, which once served a narrow-gauge railroad connecting the mines with the local smelter. Farther south stands the former Southern Pacific train station, now the town’s visitor center. As when I visited Chase Creek, there was no one at the station. The only other company I had was a swallow, who flitted to and fro above my head, no doubt gathering food for the mud nest she had glued under the awning of the station.
Chase Creek is a small place to visit, to be sure. Nevertheless, this street stands at the heart of a town that figured prominently in Southwestern history. The saga of corporate consolidation, company towns and labor unrest seems more suited for a place back East than in a place most Americans consider the wide frontier. Copper mining brought Arizona into the modern age, and corporations like Phelps Dodge controlled the lives of thousands, both directly as employers and through their influence in state and national politics. This history has an appeal for the traveler who wants to probe deeper than the superficial stereotypes about the American West, particularly that it was a place freer and more wide open than the East Coast. Chase Creek stands as a monument to the men who, through their ingenuity, developed remote copper mines into great fortunes; and to the hard-working men who toiled to make that wealth a reality.
Please be sure to read Andrea Gibbon’s blog entry about Clifton: it’s a quick yet engaging read, and her photos of Chase Creek are spectacular; the entry is titled “The streets and strikes of Clifton, Arizona:
- Gordon, Linda The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction 1999: Harvard University
Press, page 180
- Rosenblum, Jonathan D. Copper Crucible: How the Arizona Miners’ Strike of 1983 Recast Labor-Management Relations in America 1995: Cornell University Press, page 37
A sentiment shared in this evocative article: “Clifton, Arizona: A town no one knows”, by Udo Zindel, High Country News, April 4, 1994 https://www.hcn.org/issues/8/262
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