Sightseeing at an open pit mine in Arizona copper country

The mines are still in business, yet towns that once flourished are now mostly gone.


As soon as I see it rising up from the desert, a lance jutting into the blue sky, dwarfing the saguaros and mesquite and even the craggy hills around it, I get queasy. We are on a spring break road trip, my youngest daughter and I, and have decided to take a little detour on our way home from Tucson through the “Copper Triangle.” The landscape here is harsh and beautiful, brimming with life as only the desert does, and our chosen route follows its contours more faithfully, allowing for a better look, even from behind the car’s windows.

A picnic table at the Ray Mine overlook in southern Arizona.
Jonathan Thompson
It’s also a land rich with history, altered by over a century of copper mining. It seemed like a good idea to show this to Elena, my 13 year old daughter and fervent social and environmental justice advocate. But as we drive beneath the huge smokestack of the Hayden Smelter, I am no longer so sure. It feels as if I am taking her to a terribly violent movie, or making her look at a grisly car crash.

We continue on to the destination, nonetheless, pulling off the narrow highway onto a rocky drive that leads to the overlook, created to give passersby a view of the Ray Mine, owned by mining giant Asarco. The wheel of a giant ore hauler truck welcomes visitors. (Google the overlook and you’ll find a photo of a woman standing inside the wheel’s diameter, topless.) There are no trees or bushes or flowers, just some shaded picnic tables, an older couple pointing and peering through binoculars, and a chain link fence to keep us from stepping into the abyss.

Sightseers at the Ray Mine overlook.
Jonathan Thompson

And what an abyss it is. Hundreds of feet deep, six miles long, two miles wide. This manmade canyon’s walls are splashed with greens, oranges, burnt reds and lined with what appear to be farming terraces, except they are huge and devoid of life. It’s beautiful and it’s terrifying.  Palpable is the violence that has raged for decades, the blasting, gouging and hauling of the earth at a rate of nearly 100 million tons per year. The number is so big it means very little, so I point at the yellow dump trucks crawling up each “step” on the far side of the mine. “Those things are each as big as a house,” I tell Elena, my daughter. She doesn’t believe me. So I seek out a normal sized truck near one of the haulers and point out the difference between the two, like an ant standing next to a grasshopper. She seems to be in shock but also bedazzled: We are watching humans and machines alter the earth on a geological scale in real time.

I try to explain that what we are looking at is merely the gaping yaw of our collective hunger for stuff and for things. I point to the iPod she’s been gazing at for much of our trip, I point to our car, the computer on which I write this, the wires that carry the electricity that lights our home. Copper, like petroleum, is everywhere, connected to nearly everything our modern life desires or requires. We have to get it from somewhere, so why not here?

An inn in Mammoth, a town in Arizona's copper country.
Jonathan Thompson

In the 135 years since the mine was founded it has claimed a desert stream that once left a lush scar on the desert. It has taken hills and washes, cacti and mesquite, wildflowers and coyotes and roadrunners and reptiles. Yet it also gave life to a handful of towns: Sonora, Ray, Winkelman, Hayden. From other mines nearby were born Globe and Miami, Superior and Mammoth. They all once bustled. Kids played in the yards along the dusty streets, and the weekends were rowdy. During our drive, Elena and I had pulled onto Mammoth’s main drag and seen an old whitewashed building with blue signs promising dancing and dining. “This must have been a fun place,” I told her, raucous with miners and their generous pay.

There was a certain calculus to it all that made some sort of sense: The world needed copper, so companies hired people to tear up the earth to get it. Surely there was greed, and faraway executives took more than their share of the bounty. The towns were segregated, racism common, the Hispanic workers paid less than their counterparts. And yet enough of the wealth made it back into the towns, and was distributed equally enough, to create vibrant communities and a strong middle class. And when it didn’t, the unions had the power to stand up to the bosses and make some sort of change.

A fading mural in Superior, Arizona, an old mining town that is divided over a new plan to mine a huge copper deposit under land considered sacred by nearby Apache tribes.

Somewhere along the line, however, something went wrong. The mines are still running, some of them churning out more ore than ever before. While commodity prices go up and go down, copper’s has remained generally high enough to keep the mines, smelters and copper thieves in business. Last year, GrupoMexico, ASARCO’s parent company, raked in $1.7 billion in profits — after taxes. And yet the communities that once flourished have all but dried up and blown away. The mine eventually gobbled up the towns of Ray and Sonora. Hayden, in the shadow of the smelter’s slag piles and smokestack, is badly contaminated. Winkelman’s businesses are mostly abandoned and boarded up. Many of Miami and Globe’s grand old buildings are crumbling, and poverty rates are high.

It’s not hard for me to explain to Elena the link between our gadgets and the mine and the destruction it’s wrought, or between the mine’s productivity and prosperity in nearby communities. But this new equation, in which the mine thrives but the towns nearby suffer, in which a single corporate executive earns more than all 1,000 workers at the Ray Complex combined, is far more difficult to comprehend. The equation has been corrupted. By no means is it limited to Arizona’s Copper Triangle or even mining country in general. It’s everywhere. For this, I have no explanation.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News.

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