The Most Wicked and Vertical Town in the Wild American West
Perched on Cleopatra Hill 2,000 feet above the Verde Valley floor with grand vistas of Sedona’s red rock country 35 miles distant, Jerome reminds me of the old country, Europe.
It brings back childhood memories of some forgotten village along the Italian Riviera where crumbling architectural relics cling precariously to steep cliffs, its cracked and tilting walls waiting patiently to crumble to the ground at the mere hint of the next earth-rattling temblor.
It’s not the historical specter of rank lawlessness and illicit deeds of the flesh that invoke my curiosity, or the classy art galleries, lodges and dining facilities that draw me repeatedly back to Jerome, but the ancient historical buildings, the external ambiance and the steep terrain. Like most of the many tourists who have discovered this gem of an old copper mining town, I break out in a wide grin whenever I snake up the winding road and zigzag up the narrow switchbacks that give it so much character. This isn’t just any old tourist attraction. It’s one of the premier “ghost towns” of the West, rivaled only perhaps by Bisbee for its architectural uniqueness.
While some of the buildings are well-preserved - stout, multi-storied structures still open for business - what’s striking at first glance is the dilapidated conditions that prevail. The place is falling apart. Whether burned-out brick shells, free-standing walls, cracked porticos, steep and narrow stairways, gnarled wooden doors, rusty hinges and sheet-metal sheds, or the remnants of the old jail that slid two-hundred feet down the mountainside, Jerome is a charming sun-baked beauty.
Mining copper was no easy feat. The first claim was staked in 1876, the United Verde Copper Company was formed in 1883 and the Little Daisy claim was filed in 1900. Tunnels and shafts were dug and eventually a large open pit excavated, two blast furnaces were constructed and coal for the smelter was hauled in from neighboring New Mexico. As hard as it is to fathom, in the early days coke to fuel the smelter was transported all the way from Wales, England, shipped around the southern tip of South America to San Francisco then moved by rail to Ashfork, Arizona and finally south by wagon to Jerome.
The operations only grew after the Jerome smelter was dismantled and a larger more productive smelter was built down the hill near today’s Clarkdale. As a harbinger of things to come, man gave way to machine when rock-drills replaced the pick and shovel and mules ceded to specially modified four-wheel drive side-dumping dump trucks. To accommodate the increasing demand a narrow-gauge railroad was brought in, and massive Marion shovels - the ones used to dig the Panama Canal - dismantled the mountainside one noisy scoop at a time.
The commitment was profound, the labor monumental and the payoff big. By the time the mine shut down in 1953 hundreds of millions of dollars worth of copper were clawed out of the ground. The United Verde would become the richest privately-owned copper mine in the Arizona Territory producing in one year an estimated $29 million of ore in the early 1900s, and those were pre-Depression era dollars.
Like the price of anything that is subject to the vagaries of supply and demand, Jerome’s industry was no exception. World War I saw the price of copper soar, but sometimes veins “pinched out” and plunging demand for the metal would occasionally drop to unprofitable lows. But the lowest of the lows came in 1929 when the collapsed stock market and the Great Depression pushed the price of copper down to a nickel a pound, hardly worth the trouble to mine. Understandably, the mines closed, miners scattered, and five thousand residents were left to struggle through the painful ‘30s.
After the Little Daisy shut down in 1938, World War II became the silver lining to Jerome’s fading copper legacy. In the mid-30s Phelps-Dodge bought up the United Verde and got things roaring again during the heady days of the war where demand for copper soared. Whether for ships, shells, communications or power equipment, copper truly proved to be “king.” But the war years leading up to the 1950s signalled Jerome’s last blast as the mines eventually played out, the smelters were dismantled and parts carted elsewhere. Phelps-Dodge miners were transferred to other mines and life slowed to a quiet crawl, but not before the company netted over $40 million for its efforts.
By some estimates there are 90 miles of tunnels beneath the town of Jerome today, some reaching down nearly a mile. In the end Jerome’s miners extracted 2 1/2 billion pounds of copper, 50 million ounces of silver and around 1 million pounds of gold - impressive by any standards.
The big money built such impressive structures as the four-story Montana Hotel in 1900 (burned to a crisp in 1915) which housed a thousand men, the Jerome Grand Hotel (formerly the United Verde Hospital), the Douglas Mansion (now part of a State Park) and popular Conner Hotel (a favorite of biker caravans who roll through town each year).
But life wasn’t always that sweet in Jerome or so orderly early on during the most wicked of the wicked years when a mad frenzy sparked by copper fever saw canvas tents and wood shacks and wood saloons and restaurants, and, oh yes, the brothels, slapped together nilly-willy. Unfortunately for them wood burns, and between 1897 and 1900 Jerome went up in flames three times, one such fire destroying 24 saloons and 14 Chinese restaurants in one fell swoop.
Nowadays, huffing and puffing your way up the steep broken concrete stairs that rise from the first to the fourth level of town and staring out over the staggered rooftops while you gasp and wheeze and grip the railing for support, on a beautiful quiet sunny morning where the angled shadows are sharp and the air fresh and clean, before the tourists have invaded and motorists jostle for limited parking space, it’s hard to imagine just how noisy and smelly the place must have been back in its heyday.
Those grainy old black-and-whites don’t do reality justice. We’re talking about horses and mules and the ill-mannered laying waste to main street, and grizzled whiskey-drunk miners hawking their chewed tobacco on other people’s boots, and those ripe over-flowing outhouses and the stench of that smoky smelter, and the coal and wood-burning stoves that warmed as many as 15,000 people during Jerome’s peak. And the flies. Let’s not forget the flies.
Life back then, when smoking was good for you, was not as glamorous as Hollywood sometimes makes us believe. These were hard people living in a hard time saddled with all the human frailties and sensitivities of modern man compounded. The absence of law and order didn’t help the situation either in those raucous days. Depending on which way the pistol was pointed, life could be short, brutal and quite often diseased.
Take the not-so-pleasant feud in Pleasant Valley east of town where the Grahams and Tewksburys went at it until nineteen men lay buried in the rocky soil pushing up cactus. Or Anne Hopkins who marched in to the Conner Hotel in a jealous rage, grabbed the object of her hate by the hair and threw carbolic acid in her face and then spent five years in the pen contemplating the error of her ways.
Or Jennie, one of the town’s premier madams who probably should have hooked up with someone else because after she kicked the man out of the house her not-so-better half plugged her once with lead at four in the morning, then chased her down and shot her three more times for good measure, once in the head.
Come to think of it, given the tenor of the nightly news maybe things haven’t changed all that much.
After 1953 beautiful Jerome shriveled up but didn’t blow away. The resident population dwindled to a few hundred, but by the 1960s and ‘70s the town was “discovered” by some hippies, artists and writers who joined Jerome’s existing residents and eventually breathed a well-deserved life back into the old girl. Musty antiquated buildings were refurbished and packed with fine art, old residences were converted to tasteful B & Bs, hotels opened for business, and fine dining competes now with common fare.
Everybody loves gritty Jerome, especially now that the manure has been swept up, the flies chased off and the hookers have left town. Even with its tasteful gentrification it’s a must-stop for anyone visiting the sunny Verde Valley of central Arizona.
Photo Gallery of John Treadwell Dunbar.