But Superior was not built here for the scenery. It's here because of the minerals that lie within and underneath the cliffs and rocks. The Silver King Mine fueled the first boom and spawned a raucous town named Pinal. After mine, then town, went belly-up, another silver deposit was found nearby, and the town of Superior was born. The discovery of copper in the early 1900s ensured that Superior would outlive its predecessor. In 1910, the Magma Copper Company took over the Silver Queen Mine and turned it into a large-scale operation, building a railroad to haul the ore. The ruins of the company's huge smelter still sit empty amid the tailings on the edge of town.
Over the next few decades, enterprising settlers and entrepreneurs transformed the mining camp into a permanent community. One of them was O.C. Hing, who traveled all the way from China to this Arizona desert outpost, where he established a grocery business. Other institutions sprouted, financed by direct or indirect funding from the mine - the Magma hospital, the stately and solid Greek-columned school, the businesses along the main street.
Like mining towns from Butte, Mont., to Silverton, Colo., Superior became a cosmopolitan place, with migrant miners coming from Wales, Italy, eastern Europe and even China. Most of Superior's miners, though, like those of the other Arizona copper towns, were people of Mexican descent. (Today, about 70 percent of the town's residents are Hispanic.) Together, the residents settled in and built a culture and a community, which thrived throughout the '50s, '60s and '70s. The boom seemed endless.
"I grew up seeing the heyday," says Michael Hing, the mayor of Superior and O.C. Hing's grandson, who now runs the family's Save Money Store with his brother. "There were 7,000 people here. We had a theater, shoe stores, a clothing store." Rumor has it there were 17 drinking establishments, all filled up after the shifts.
"This was one of the best little towns you could ask for," says Ruben Fernandez, a former mayor of Superior. "People used to watch out for one another."
Even in those days, however, there were ups and downs. Metal prices fluctuated, and miners went on strike; there were cave-ins, injuries, floods and fires that led to cutbacks or shutdowns. But people persevered until the boom returned. And it always did. Even during the Depression, the Magma Mine continued to operate, and Superior endured.
In the early 1980s, however, a new and more serious threat appeared: Chile, with a large supply of high-grade ore and cheap labor, had modernized its operations to compete with U.S. copper mines. Meanwhile, as U.S. environmental regulations got stronger, operational costs increased. By 1986, globalization had infiltrated the hardrock mining industry, and Chile had surpassed the U.S. in copper production.
That was enough to knock the legs out from under the Magma Mine. It shut down in 1982, and though many locals always held out hope that mining would return, others seemed to accept that the world had changed.
"They just locked
the gates and said, ... Leave,' " says Roy Chavez, a native of
Superior and former mayor and city manager. "We lost over 1,200
jobs in one day. After that, things really set in that things might
not be the same."
Mining did return for a brief flurry from 1990 to 1996, but things would, indeed, never be the same. After the 1982 shutdown, most of the younger miners fled to Nevada, where the industry's big open-pit mines weathered lower metal prices. In 1970, 5,000 people lived in Superior; by 1990, the population had plummeted to fewer than 3,500.
"The town died," says Daniel Avenvano, who worked in mines for 25 years, both in Superior and in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
Mayor Hing says families were torn apart by the sudden exodus of young miners. Crime and drug and alcohol abuse increased. Plummeting property values encouraged outside investors to come in and buy up buildings; today, according to Hing, more than 300 properties in town are owned by out-of-towners, part of the reason Anna Jeffrey's used-to-be game is so filled with emptiness.
So it's only natural that people like Hing would welcome Resolution's proposal to tunnel deep into the earth and mine copper just outside Superior. Resolution President John Rickus expects the mine to create more than 1,000 full-time jobs, with as many as 3,000 contract employees working during the construction and development phase. With Arizona's copper industry paying an average salary of nearly $60,000 per year, the mine could give Superior a big boost.
And yet Jeffrey, whose dad was a machinist at the old smelter, is not enthused. "That used to be the Magma hospital," she says from her car, motioning to a brick building at the end of a side street. "I was born there." Now, after a multimillion-dollar remodel, the hospital houses Resolution Copper Company's "stupid-ass offices." Jeffrey now lives in Gold Canyon on the eastern edge of Phoenix and commutes every day to Mesa to work at Boeing. She'd like to return to Superior and open an art gallery, she says, but she won't do it if Resolution's mine takes off. "It's not that we're against mining," she says, echoing a half-dozen people I've spoken to today, "it's just that we want it done right."
Doing it "right" means doing it the old way: underground cut-and-fill mining. By contrast, Resolution's mine, while not a dreaded open-pit mine, will be a sort of underground version of it called "block caving."
The process will involve huge quantities of material - some 1.5 billion tons of ore. As all that material is removed from deep under the earth, the surface land above it - an area known as Oak Flat - will sink, or subside.