See America | The Copper Mines of Jerome, Arizona

See America | The Copper Mines of Jerome, Arizona

This episode of the See America Podcast was written and hosted by Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue.

Listen below:

The Mining Town of Jerome, Arizona:

High in the hills overlooking Arizona’s Verde Valley, a tiny town filled with history sits, like a mother bird over nesting over her eggs. Except this egg is a billion-dollar deposit of copper. And the mother bird – a brave and raucous mix of miners, smelter workers, freighters, gamblers, bootleggers, saloon keepers, prostitutes, and preachers.

But like most American history, the story of Jerome begins much earlier, with Native Americans. Tribes had inhabited this area for centuries and were the first to discover the rich mineral deposits. They used the copper metal for die to paint their faces, clothes, and blankets.
Always on the lookout for precious metals, the Spanish enticed the Yavapai people to lead them to their mine, which was little more than a 16-foot cave-like pit. But, the Spanish weren’t interested in copper. In their quest for gold and silver, they soon abandoned the area.

The inhabitants of the valley were left alone by white settlers until the 1850s. After the Mexican-American war ended in 1848 and the region became part of the United States, more and more Anglo-Americans began to arrive in the area. In 1863, gold was discovered near Prescott and thousands of miners flooded the region.

In an attempt to protect themselves from the encroaching white settlers, the Yavapai, who had previously been peaceful, began to band together in an attempt to safeguard their land and food supplies. Hostilities broke out between the Yavapai and the settlers, and after the Civil War, the U.S. Cavalry was sent in to conquer the Indians. What was left of the tribe was sent to the Camp Verde Reservation.

The Camp Verde Reservation stretched for miles along both sides of the Verde River northwest of Camp Verde. Cleopatra Hill, with its untold riches, lay within the reservation, but the tribes were forced by the federal government to move to another reservation in 1877, opening the Verde Valley up for mining and settlement.

History of Jerome, Arizona:

The steep slopes of Cleopatra Hill may seem like an odd place for a town, but that didn’t stop the intrepid miners who flocked to the area. The first mining claims were staked in 1876, and it was discovered that Cleopatra hill was rich in high-grade copper ore. The mining camp of Jerome precariously hugged the northeast slope of the mountain.

The town was named after a wealthy financier and officer of the new United Verde Copper Company, Eugene Jerome. Eugene was a cousin of Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill. But Jerome never did see his namesake town.

A metal water tank that had been hauled from Prescott by mule train in 1879 became the center of the young camp. The first wooden building was a two-story saloon and bordello built next to the water tank by a madam named Nora “Butter” Brown.

The United Verde Copper Company began operating on Cleopatra Hill in 1883. United Verde built a smelter fueled by coke that proved to be wildly successful, with profits of $1,500 to $2,000 per day.

By the end of December, the works at Jerome had been operating for four months. In this time, United Verde processed around 5,000 tons of ore, yielding 200 tons of copper bullion, along with lesser amounts of gold and silver. Over the next 70 years, the mines produced a billion dollars in copper, silver, and gold.

A wagon road was built from Flagstaff to Jerome, and the tent city grew into a mining town of wooden buildings. Jerome had a post office operating inside a local store by 1885 and four saloons by 1887. United Verde employed over 300 men by 1890 as miners, smelter workers, and teamsters. The company and the town installed electrical lighting in 1890.

Jerome was called the “wickedest town in America” by the San Francisco Examiner newspaper in 1899. A Phoenix newspaper described the town in September 1899 as having “one beggarly looking church and at least sixteen saloons and more going up.”

Multiple catastrophic fires destroyed Jerome, but the richness of the mines assured that it would be rebuilt each time. The April 1894 fire began in the early morning hours. The townspeople were woken up by the sound of gunshots fired by a bartender in a burning saloon. Heavy winds made fighting the flames futile. A second fire that year burned what was left of the downtown in June. A blaze on Christmas Eve 1897 burned down a block in the notorious “tenderloin district” including a bordello, four saloons, and a boarding house/ restaurant. Another fire hit in September 1898 and, in the words of Phoenix newspaper, its “fiery breath” blew “Jerome off the face of the earth.” At least eight people died in the blaze.

The fire of May 1899 started in the Leland Hotel and spread quickly through downtown and a new hospital. Saloons, restaurants, stores, a bowling alley, a blacksmith shop, and a barbershop were destroyed or damaged along with dozens of small wooden dwellings.
That year, the town incorporated as the fourth largest in Arizona. New building codes and a fire department helped keep the town intact.

Several new mining companies bought claims in the district during the 1890s, and Jerome first received rail service in 1895. The United Verde & Pacific was dubbed “the crookedest line in the world” from all the twists and turns that were required to navigate the steep terrain.

During World War I, demand for copper raised its prices, and Jerome’s mines were busy. Miners from all over the world came for work.

Underground fires burned in some of the miles of mine tunnels under and near the town for years. In 1905, as water from recent flooding seeped into parts of the United Verde mine that were burning, an explosion occurred. A dozen miners waiting to be raised 300 feet to the surface during a shift change were killed or severely injured by the hot steam and gases. The fires eventually got too widespread to be avoided, and underground mining was phased out in 1918 in favor of pit mining.

Jerome’s precarious position on the steep mountain slope would cause many problems throughout its history. Landslides and cracked building foundations were common occurrences. The jail building was jostled off its foundations by a powerful blast in 1938 and slid downhill. The jail still stands where it ended up, across the road, and 225 feet from where it was built.

Copper production peaked in 1929, but the Depression and low-grade ore deposits reversed the fortunes of the town. The Little Daisy mine shut down in 1938. Phelps Dodge took over the United Verde mine in 1935, but loss of profits brought the operation and Jerome’s mining days to an end in 1953.

Jerome’s population reached 15,000 in the 1920s, but by the end of the copper mining era, Jerome nearly became a ghost town with only 50 residents. The Phelps Dodge and United Verde Exploration companies owned most of the land under the town, many lots and buildings in town, and the schools and hospital. They began bulldozing buildings in the town, beginning with the four-story T.F. Miller building that had stood since 1899. Local kids were paid a penny per brick to whack the mortar off the bricks for re-use.

An enterprising group of locals that stuck around formed the Jerome Historical Society and halted demolition of the town’s buildings in 1956. They successfully marketed the town for tourists as the “World’s Largest Ghost City.” The society opened the Mine Museum and Gift Shop on Main Street in the 1950s, and it is still open. A new counter-culture generation of artists began re-populating the town in the 1960s. Today, Jerome is very much alive with writers, artists, artisans, musicians, historians, and families. They form a peaceful, colorful, thriving community built on a rich foundation of history and lore.

Visiting Jerome, Arizona:

In 1965 the Douglas Mansion – built-in 1916 by James S. Douglas on a hill above his Little Daisy Mine – became an Arizona state park.

Douglas designed the house as a hotel for mining officials and investors as well as for his own family. It featured a wine cellar, billiard room, marble shower, steam heat, and, much ahead of its time, a central vacuum system. Douglas was most proud of the fact that the house was constructed of adobe bricks that were made on the site.

He also built the Little Daisy Hotel near the mine as a dormitory for the miners. The concrete structure still stands.

This former home is now a museum devoted to the history of the Jerome area and the Douglas family. The museum features historical exhibits of photographs, artifacts, and minerals in addition to a video presentation and a 3-D model of the town with its underground mines. One room, the Douglas library, is restored as a period room. There are more displays outside along with a picnic area offering a beautiful panoramic view of the Verde Valley.

Today, Jerome’s eclectic shop owners open their doors for the tourist trade and put their wares on the sidewalk. Wineries offer tastings, fine restaurants serve excellent food, and boutique hotels offer overnight stays.


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