Jerome Always Teetered On the Brink
Arizona’s “Billion Dollar Copper Camp” it was called, “America’s Most Unique City,” “Largest Ghost City in America,” “One Mile High With a Fifty-Mile View.” Despite all the accolades Jerome has spent the past 126 years perilously clinging to the steep slopes of Cleopatra Hill both literally and figuratively. After each economic windfall, following each period of prosperity came some new threat to the community, some calamity, often threatening Jerome’s very existence. As a result, life for most residents has been hard.
The centennial year of 1876 brought prospectors to a silver deposit on the eastern slope of the Black Hills overlooking the Verde Valley. Spanish explorers named the Verde River, probably after the extensive greenstone rock formations found in its valley walls. Thirteen mining claims were consolidated in 1882 to form the United Verde Copper Company. The following year a company town was started and a post office established, named after principle investor Eugene Jerome, a New York lawyer and cousin of Winston Churchill’s American mother. The silver would pay the cost of smelting copper, leaving all the copper as profit for investors. This lithograph shows the United Verde mine and smelter in upper Bitter Creek Gulch in 1884, just above where the open pit is now. At the time copper had recently been added to the original silver workings. In those days the Black Hills were verdant in more ways than one. But by 1900, sulphur-dioxide fumes from a greatly enlarged smelter had killed all vegetation around Jerome.
The remote location hindered development in the 1870s, and even after the Atlantic & Pacific railroad came in 1882, everything for Jerome, for the workers, for mining, had to be freighted by wagon over rough country from Prescott or Ash Fork. Coke to fuel the smelter furnace was shipped from Wales around the world to San Francisco and then by train to Ash Fork. Copper matte was hauled to Ash Fork and put on a train for a refinery in New Jersey. Still, investors on the east coast reaped a profit.
Then, shortly after a railroad branch line reached Prescott in December 1886, passing within a rugged 25 miles of Jerome, the vein of copper ore seemed to run out and the United Verde shut down. As it happened, William A. Clark (1839-1925) with copper mines in Montana had been following the fortunes of the United Verde and purchased the mine in 1888, renewing exploration. As luck would have it, a huge body of rich ore was located deeper and farther down the gulch and the mine reopened in 1890. By 1894, the Santa Fe Railway had taken over the bankrupt A&P and built a new branch line to Prescott. The United Verde then laid rails that year from the Santa Fe, Prescott & Phoenix Railroad to Jerome, reducing shipping costs and bringing a wide range of goods to stores. As boom times blanketed the community with wealth, the tightly packed business district was swept again and again by fire.Like many early towns quickly constructed of cheap wood-frame buildings, Jerome was wiped out by devastating fires in 1894, 1897, 1898 and 1899. Fire resistant construction and organization of a fire brigade kept succeeding blazes from destroying more than just a few buildings or single neighborhoods in 1900, 1902, 1907, 1911, 1917, 1918, 1919, 1926 and 1927. In this view a crowd of concerned residents watch the fire of June 6, 1918 that burned 60 structures in the Hispanic neighborhood, leaving 1,000 people homeless.
In 1897 fire started underground in the mine. The copper came in the form of a combustible sulfide ore. Unable to stop the smoldering, miners walled off the burning rock and continued to drill and dig in almost unbearably hot conditions, hoping runoff from summer rains reaching the hot rock would not cause too great a steam explosion. Only creating an open pit and digging out the burning ore eliminated the fire in the late 1920s.
Knowing they were making rich eastern investors even richer, miners asked for a shorter workday and better conditions. The first labor strike in 1902 halted production for several months. Bricklayers struck in 1904, then United Verde shut down in 1906 in order to avoid another strike. Layoffs came with the recession of 1907, but improved working conditions followed the election of progressive state legislators in 1912. Still, the buildup for war production in 1917 brought the worst labor strike yet. Pro-war patriots who supported company management rounded up seventy-five union workers and forcibly shipped them out of Jerome to Kingman that July, two days before the more famous deportation at Bisbee.This photograph by Carlos Elmer about 1948, published and distributed as a postcard by Bob Petley, looks from the entrance of Jerome in the mouth of Hull Canyon across the Verde Valley toward the cliffs of the Mogollon Rim, with the snow-covered San Francisco Peaks on top of the Colorado Plateau about 50 miles away. At right, Highway 89A leaves the city limit along the Hogback, looping around Mingus Union High School. The school buildings have orange roofs and the smoke stacks of Clarkdale smelter, five miles below, can be seen above the roofs. The high school moved to Cottonwood in 1972. This view showing most of the town about 1928 looks back from near the high school toward the vantage point on the hill behind the telephone pole used by Carlos Elmer to make the photograph above. The dirt road is Highway 79 (later renumbered 89A) connecting Jerome with Clarkdale, Cottonwood and Sedona. The “J” is on Cleopatra Hill and the United Verde open pit is located just to the right. The Little Daisy mine is farther to the right, out of view. This postcard was published by MacDonald the druggist in Jerome, colorized and printed by CT American Art.
Jerome and its copper mines grew and prospered for forty years, quickly recovering following three recessions. The United Verde was making a million dollars a month as early as 1895. Population in town ballooned from 500 in 1893, a recession year, to nearly 3,000 by the 1900 census and then fell back a few hundred by 1910 after the recession of 1907. United Verde employment rose from 800 in 1900 to more than a thousand six years later. But the underground fire and an inefficient smelter were threatening profits. So in 1911 the United Verde selected a new smelter site down in the valley below Jerome and began open pit mining with huge steam shovels on the site of the old smelter.Verde Tunnel & Smelter R.R. was the only short line in the US to operate huge Mallet compound 2-6-6-2 locomotives. They were needed to economically negotiate the steep grade between Jerome and Clarkdale. Here Mallet No. 500 is working in the open pit just below the surface plant near the north side of Cleopatra Hill around 1920. The mines were served by several railroads over the years. First came the United Verde & Pacific Railway, a 3-foot narrow gauge line built 26 miles from the Santa Fe, Prescott & Phoenix in Chino Valley beginning in 1894. It ceased operations in 1920 after the standard gauge Verde Valley Railroad began operations in 1911 between the Santa Fe at Drake and the new town of Clarkdale below Jerome. In 1912, the Verde Tunnel & Smelter Railroad was run 11 miles from Clarkdale to Jerome. It delivered supplies to Jerome and hauled ore from Hopewell to Clarkdale. The United Verde Copper Company Railway operated trains in the open pit and around the shops at Jerome. Steam shovels also moved on these rails. Then in 1922 the Arizona-Extension Railway was built from the United Verde Extension mine haulage tunnel to another smelter at Clemenceau (now inside Cottonwood). At the beginning of the twentieth century, steam shovels made possible the moving of large amounts of dirt quicker and at lower cost than horse-drawn Fresno scrapers. Beginning in 1918, steam shovels excavated an open pit mine to supplement the United Verde underground workings. In this view from about 1920, the shovel (probably an Osgood 120 model) is loading side-dump cars pulled by a small VT&SRR Rogers 0-4-0 engine to ore chutes in the floor of the open pit. The chutes dumped the ore into rail cars in the Hopewell haulage tunnel under the pit.
Speculative prospecting all around the United Verde ore body over the years found no other large and equally rich deposits, leading most engineers to judge the mine unique. But James S. Douglas, whose father built up the Phelps Dodge operation at Bisbee and had explored the Jerome ore body in 1880, doubted the experts. He bought the Little Daisy mine in Bitter Creek gulch just below the United Verde. And there, in 1914, his prospectors located another rich ore body, even more fabulous than the United Verde. It became the United Verde Extension mine (UVX) and produced $9.9 million in two years, of which $7.4 million was profit. Only four mines produced almost all the wealth taken out of the Black Hills. By far the largest were the UV and the UVX.The Little Daisy mine is located on the north side of Bitter Creek (the deep gulch in the foreground) at the base of Sunshine Hill. A United Verde and Pacific train is rounding the hill headed for Jerome station. This postcard was probably issued around the time the railroad ceased operations in 1920. The Little Daisy Hotel is the big building on the hill.
Between 1888 and 1922, the United Verde produced 1.1 billion pounds of copper, more than 563,000 ounces of gold and 18.4 million ounces of silver. Revenue during those years amounted to more than $167 million. In 1924, labor costs to produce a pound of copper amounted to less than 3 cents. All other costs, including 2 cents in taxes, amounted to nearly 9 cents a pound. Copper was selling for 13 cents a pound that year, leaving about a penny for profit. Still, stockholders received $3.3 million in dividends in 1924. When the price of copper was highest in 1918, stockholders were paid $5.6 million.
That kind of wealth required hard work and sacrifice. Due to the underground fire, engineers had to devise an air cooling system to drop the temperature in drill holes low enough to permit safe tamping of blasting powder in the open pit. As steam shovels reached the smoldering ore, they scooped it up into dump trucks, which had recently replaced rail cars for transport. The steam shovel bucket and dump beds often glowed a dark red from the heat. One day in 1926 the largest steam shovel in the world, working in the open pit, sliced into an old unexploded dynamite charge left underground. The resulting explosion completely wrecked the machine, killed two operators and injured two more.In 1920, a recession year, the Arizona highway department put men to work turning the old wagon road across Mingus Mountain from Jerome to Prescott into a modern, though dirt, automobile highway. It would later be numbered Arizona 79 and then US 89A. This 1925 postcard by Curt Teich says “Yaeger Canyon” but it looks like Hull Canyon, the last pass before coming out into the Verde Valley at Jerome City Limit. Yaeger Canyon is the last pass going the other way before dropping down into Prescott Valley.
Each blast underground or in the pit shook the ground hollowed out by years of tunneling. The brick assay office was swallowed up by a collapsing stope in 1899 with loss of three lives. After heavy blasting in 1925 many buildings in Jerome began sliding downhill an inch a month. In 1928, a whole block of business buildings collapsed as the ground underneath gave way. As the open pit deepened, in 1929 the sheer northern wall began sending boulders crashing to the bottom. Engineers placed markers on the rim high above and took daily measures of subsidence. They predicted a large mass of fractured rock would give way in March 1931. Economic depression had curtailed mining by then and the work area was easily evacuated in advance. Sure enough, with a big roar and clouds of dust, a million tons of rock slid into the open pit.
All the while the Clarkdale and Clemenceau smokestacks belched out their sulfurous fumes. Farmers in the Verde Valley claimed crop damage and sued. Investigators found damage to pine trees far away on the Mogollon Rim below Williams. Damage payments were made and the smelters kept operating.
Earlier, government took to cleaning up sin and vice in Jerome. When the town was incorporated in 1899, an ordinance limited the number of saloons to a dozen. The number was reduced to eight in 1911. Presumably the fewer number just did a bigger business. Town government outlawed gambling in 1906 but the ordinance was quickly overturned by the courts. The following year, the territorial legislature outlawed gambling and barred women from saloons as a way to discourage prostitution. Jerome had a thriving red-light district, even though the town council had outlawed women working in saloons in 1905. Open prostitution finally ended across the nation in 1917 as a federal war measure requested by the military.This is the busy east side of Main Street about 1919. Yavapai Drug Store had recently taken over the building constructed in 1899 for The Fashion saloon. Prohibition of alcohol began in Arizona January 1, 1915, replacing some bars with ice cream and soda pop fountains. Soda became popular in the 1880s as a temperance drink and a healthier alternative to drug store bitters and elixirs. At first, colas were promoted for medicinal purposes, but by the twentieth century they were largely considered refreshments. In any case, The Fashion, on the corner of Main and Jerome Avenue, became an appropriate place for the little girl on the sidewalk. The same corner is seen here about 1965. In 1953 the Jerome Mine Museum opened in The Fashion building. Across Jerome Avenue is the Connor Hotel (1898) and the Liberty Theater building. Next door to the Mine Museum the building that once housed Fisher’s Bar again serves beer as Paul’s Place. Then comes the Laura Williams Antique Museum where there used to be a barber shop.
The fourth recession was harder and longer than the others. United Verde underground and open pit mining ceased in 1931. UVX reduced production. Work in the pit resumed in 1935 and underground on a smaller scale in 1937. As the Great Depression finally eased another world war loomed and the end was in sight for Jerome. Engineers had located the bottom of the ore bodies in the UV and UVX mines. United Verde underground mining continued but the open pit played out by 1940. The UV Extension was dissolved in 1938 and the United Verde, which had been purchased by Phelps Dodge in 1935, ceased mining and smelter operations in 1953. The population of Jerome, which some say had reached an unofficial 15,000 by 1927, had dropped to 2,295 in 1940 and 1,233 by 1950. Those who could moved on. Many Hispanics, who once represented half the labor force, had to stay. Still, the population dropped to 243 by 1960. A few artists came and the old copper camp was billed a “ghost town” to attract tourism. Trees began to grow again. By 2009 Jerome had become a nice place to visit and live. Cafes, inns, boutiques and more than 30 galleries and studios occupy restored historic structures. But now, will hard times return?Something about the setting of Jerome has long inspired artists. I think many were attracted to the decay of the ramshackle structures in need of repair, sort of like the nostalgia attached to ancient Greek and Roman ruins. Some saw beauty in all the chaos. And then there is the 50-mile view. Kay Henson Manley produced this drawing during the time when Jerome was being reborn as an artists’ colony. I know nothing about Manley other than she was connected earlier with the prominent Thomas H. Bate photography studio in Prescott.
E. M. J. Alenius, A Brief History of the United Verde Open Pit, Jerome, Arizona
Univ. of Ariz., Arizona Bureau of Mines Bulletin 178 (1968)
Art Clark & Richard Snodgrass, Ballad of a Laughing Mountain
Waldemar Lindgren, Ore Deposits of the Jerome and Bradshaw Mountains Quadrangles, Arizona
USGS Bulletin 782 (1928)
Russell Wahmann, Verde Valley Railroads
Herbert V. Young, They Came to Jerome