Douglas: “The Smelter City” Cleaned Up To Become “The Premier Southwestern Border Community.”
After 20 years smelting ore at Bisbee, the Phelps Dodge Copper Queen mine realized that Mule Pass Gulch “is not a desirable location for a smelter. The ground is rough, the water bad, and it is difficult of access for transportation.” (Douglas Chamber of Commerce booklet, 1908, Univ. of Ariz. Institutional Repository.) A site for a new and larger smelter right on the border with Mexico was selected in the wide flat prairie of the Sulphur Springs Valley that had long been used by cattle ranchers. Nearby, private developers with an inside tip bought up range land and laid out city streets in 1901, selling lots to smelter workers and businesses cheaper than the going rate in the Salt River Valley. The town was named Douglas, after Phelps Dodge President Dr. James Stewart Douglas (1837-1918).
In this view of G Avenue looking south about 1907 the street cars are at 10th Street. Douglas was one of only five cities in Arizona to enjoy electric street railway transportation (Bisbee, Phoenix, Prescott and Tucson were the others). G Avenue and 10th Street was the center of the commercial district. The building on the right is the Copper Queen company store or Phelps Dodge Mercantile, with First National Bank across 10th Street. On the east side of G Avenue is a corner drug store, Douglas Drug Company in the Meguire Building.
Phelps Dodge created the El Paso & Southwestern Railroad to haul ore from Bisbee and connect Douglas with El Paso. The Arizona & Southeastern railroad connected Douglas with copper mines at Nacozari, Sonora and Deming, New Mexico. Construction of a new Copper Queen Smelter began in 1900 and an enlarged operation was complete by 1904, after which the Bisbee smelter was closed. Meanwhile in 1903, Bisbee’s Calumet & Arizona company built its own smelter next to the new Copper Queen works. The valley filled with smoke and pockets filled with money.
Two blocks east of the above view, adjacent to “church square,” was this upper middle-class residential section as it appeared in the 1910s. The camera is looking south down E Avenue just east of the old library. Douglas was laid out in a classic grid pattern with numbered streets running east and west, crossed by avenues named by letters A through J. Lots were large with front sidewalks separated from the street and service alleys in back.
Contrasted with a residential street in Douglas, this is the Hispanic community of Pirtleville in the 1910s. Homes are smaller, and lack trees, lawn, paved sidewalks, curbs and separation from the street. Hispanic workers at the smelters were paid less than whites. One hundred years later, substandard housing is still a problem in the community.
At first, Douglas was a rowdy town like Bisbee, but many residents were determined to make it “clean, modern and healthful,” as it would soon boast in 1908. The Arizona Rangers moved their headquarters there from Bisbee in 1902 to join with the Cochise County Sheriff in a war on crime and vice. Peace officers would also be available to break union strikes. A lot of effort was put into making Douglas a prosperous and comfortable community and that work paid off for generations to come. By the 1920s, there were eight miles of paved streets, 150 miles of drinking water lines, 27 miles of sewer lines, electricity, piped gas, and telephones, three city parks, 10 schools and seven churches.
And, unlike other Arizona mining towns, job prospects were diversified early on, with a gypsum block factory and a brewery much larger than the one at Bisbee. When the last smelter closed in January 1987, Douglas turned to clothing manufacturing. Several Maquilladores set up production with cheap labor in Agua Prieta, Sonora just across the border. After a slight decrease in population, Douglas added more than 5,000 residents in about 15 years.
Here is G Avenue looking south again at the intersection of 11th Street about 1960. The 5-story Gadsden Hotel is at right, with the Phelps Dodge store to the south. Across G Avenue is the Western Auto store. The Gadsden was built in 1907 but burned February 7, 1928 with extensive damage to exterior walls. It was rebuilt by the following year. Amazingly, interior marble survived and the interior now looks much as it has since 1907.
Typical of Arizona mining communities, before 1950 many Hispanic workers and their families lived in a separate town a mile to the northwest called Pirtleville. While Douglas incorporated in 1905, today Pirtleville is still unincorporated and without the infrastructure that city government provides. Raul Castro, Arizona’s first Hispanic governor, grew up in Pirtleville and graduated from Douglas High School.
Relations with Mexico have gone through periods of peace and conflict in southern Arizona. For decades there was no fence along the border with casual access available to both sides. Smelter slag piles extended across the border and when Douglas residents built an international airport in 1928 the runway extended into Mexico. But during the revolutionary period in Mexico from 1910 to 1920 a large number of US troops were stationed at Douglas to protect the border and invade Mexico as the need arose. When quiet returned, Douglas became a tourist destination. Upscale couples could reach Douglas via American Airlines after 1929 and escape both cold weather and prohibition by soaking up the “Douglas sunshine and Agua Prieta moonshine.” A transcontinental highway, first called the Bankhead or Bankhead-Borderland Highway and later Highway 80 went from Bisbee through Douglas and on to New Mexico.
Named for an army corporal killed guarding the border at Douglas, the camp was constructed in 1911 a few miles north of town when revolution flared in Mexico. In 1915, Pancho Villa tried to capture Agua Prieta, then raided Columbus, New Mexico the following year. The US Army pursued him into Mexico from Camp Jones. When soldiers had to leave to enter the World War in Europe, National Guard forces continued to man the post, as many as 25,000 in 1917.
Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing arrives by car at Camp Harry J. Jones, probably in 1916 when he commanded a punitive raid into Mexico against Pancho Villa. Troops at Douglas were among the first to use automobiles, trucks and airplanes. An army biplane out of Douglas flew what some claim to be the first US military bomber mission.
The collapse of copper prices and economic depression led to population declines from 1919 to 1923 and 1931 to 1938. Phelps Dodge purchased Calumet and Arizona in 1931 and abandoned the Copper Queen Smelter. By the beginning of World War II miners were back to work and the remaining smelter was in full production. Douglas profited from the war effort. In 1941, the military built Douglas Army Air Field eight miles north of town for advanced bomber pilot training. Among the 5,500 servicemen stationed there was a group of African American WACs, including Anna M. Clarke who led a protest that resulted in desegregating the base theater. Now the former military airfield is a county facility, Bisbee-Douglas International Airport. A state prison was built in 1987 where barracks, service buildings and theater used to be. The other airport on the east side of Douglas is a municipal facility with runways now entirely inside the US.
The Phelps Dodge smelter at Douglas is pictured about 1938. A string of railroad ore cars is seen behind the automobiles. At left is a small motorized locomotive with a slag pot that probably needed repair. Electric locomotives running under an overhead catenary took slag pots to the dump.
After the Copper Queen smelter was abandoned in 1931, Phelps Dodge continued to operate the enlarged Calumet & Arizona smelter, seen here about 1943. When both smelters were operating, with ore coming by rail from Ajo, Bisbee and Nacozari, Douglas produced half of the copper in the state. Before 1917, payroll amounted to $500,000 a month. Then, economic depressions in the early 1920s and the early 1930s hit the industry hard. During World War II and the postwar economic expansion copper was needed and workers had good jobs. But industrial globalization beginning in the 1980s brought an end to copper production at Douglas. The smelter closed in 1987 and smoke stacks were finally demolished January 13, 1991.
Border Air Museum, located at 3200 E. 10th Street, Douglas, AZ
Slaughter Ranch Museum, 6153 Geronimo Trail, Douglas, AZ 85607 (mailing address) “Texas John” Slaughter’s (1842-1922) historic ranch and museum is located in the San Bernardino National Wildlife Preserve 15 miles east of Douglas.