Rich History

Clifton A Town Born of Chance

Horse and Buggy era
Horse and Buggy era

The Spanish Explorer Coronado was probably the first in a long list of intrepides to pass through what is now Clifton, Arizona. He was looking for gold for the Spanish Crown but though there is gold to be found even today in the San Francisco River, the quantities are very small. Fur trappers arrived in the early 1800’s, but it wasn’t until after the Civil War that things really got going.

In the mid 1860’s Henry Clifton (thus the name) came from the Prescott area to prospect for gold but instead found rich copper ore.

In 1870, Army officer Captain Chase and the Metcalf brothers camped near the confluence of the San Francisco River and a side creek, since called Chase Creek, while tracking an Indian war party. Two years later a peace Treaty with the Chiricahua Apache Chief, who was born in the area, along with the Mining Act of 1872 made the whole process of establishing a mine easier and the mining of copper in southern Arizona profitable – well maybe?

Clifton smelter - 1912
Clifton Smelter – 1912

So it kind of goes like this:

  • The Metcalfs proved the ore body but sold out to
  • The Lesinskis whose Longfellow mine did produce copper but not a lot of profit
  • They sold to Frank Underwood
  • Who turned around and sold to a group of Scottish Investors who called themselves the Arizona Copper Company
  • Around the same time, 1872-1882, The Detroit Copper Company was established and later the Shannon Copper Company.

Now all this time, up to the early 1900’s, copper prices bounced up and down from as little as twelve cents to twenty-six cents per pound. With the ore quality diminishing, it was boom and bust for the little town of Clifton.

Consolidation happened around the time of WWI so that by 1921 all copper claims and production were under the Phelps Dodge Corporation which had been a part owner of the Detroit Copper Company.

Going shopping - 1915
Going Shopping – 1915

Clifton peaked in population around 1910 with a listed census of 5,000 though probably many more really lived here. The three basic groups, White, Mexican and Chinese did not regularly intermingle so census numbers varied depending on who was counting. Adding Morenci and Metcalf, two towns further up Chase Creek, the population neared 18,000. Today not more than 9,000 people reside in all of Greenlee County.

The Great Depression, which started with the Stock Market crash of 1929, put a severe kink in copper and Clifton. The mine closed for nearly four years but resumed in 1937 to transform underground mines to an open Pit Mine. Miners dug over four year to reach the main ore body and boom years boomed again in Clifton, Arizona.

In the years since the development of open pit mining, technology has marched. Steam engines  were replaced by electric, which in turn were replaced by diesel, and trucks and shovels have grown to a scale unimaginable.

What has not changed…yet constantly does:

  • Floods — Numerous times but especially 1972 and again in 1983. Severe flooding has cast economic and physical hard times on the town of Clifton.
  • Copper Prices — though higher in recent years they continue to bob up and down with little apparent rhyme or reason
  • Employment Fluxation — The buildup of jobs in some years followed by large layoffs in others.
  • Labor Tension — Labor unrest and strikes from as far back as the 1880’s and culminating in the LAST strike — that of 1983. This was a time of grief, turbulence, families torn apart; a time of great ideological debate that left the Town of Clifton at low ebb.
Gasing up in the 1970s
Gassing up in the 1970s

Some towns that have faced the troubles Clifton has seen have crumbled and blown away over the years. Others have claimed they were too tough to die; Clifton, however, has shown that it is resilient. First the prospectors, then the Scottish, Italians, Mexicans, Chinese, Native Americans and more have found a way to make Clifton better, make it work, rebuild it, re-model, and reinvent.

In Arizona’s Centennial of 2012 and beyond you will see the adventurous traveler, camera in hand, taking pictures of the new and the old in Clifton. But if you look behind the camera lens you just might see a little bit of the long ago pioneer. The mind behind that lens is churning. There are thoughts of I could remodel, I could make it work, I could make a home in Clifton. Just maybe, I could help make it BOOM!