Clifton, Arizona: A town no one knows

 

CLIFTON, Ariz. - We must have stuck out as an exotic bunch of dudes driving through this remote mining town of a couple of thousand people in southeastern Arizona: One student from South Korea, one from Japan and one from Germany. It was Christmas break at Arizona State University, and we had ventured out to search for traces of the Wild West.

Chase Creek, the old business district, looked right out of the movies with its historic brick buildings squeezed between a hill and a mountain creek. Stores and banks, boardinghouses and saloons, impressive at the turn of the century, looked ready to collapse: their roofs leaking, their windows smashed or boarded up, their stamped tin ceilings corroding. But the soft afternoon sun made them places of romance and adventure - an impression which lasted about half an hour, until one of the natives accompanied us up the hill, to the open-pit mine beyond the twin town of New Morenci.

It was a frightening drive, on a road so steep and winding that it would put a Swiss mountain pass to shame. From the top, we looked down into something Switzerland never had: a man-made canyon two miles wide and three miles long, its terraced walls shining in hues of red, gray and blue. Ant-sized things crawled across its bottom, emitting low roars. They were oversized 200-ton trucks, our guide told us, with tires standing nine feet tall. Those trucks and the shovels that fed them were moving mountains at the rate of up to 500,000 tons of ore and waste per day.

Ever since that first visit in 1986, I have been fascinated by this huge, ever-growing mine, and by the two humble towns around it that no one seems to know. New Morenci is a company town, non-union, with modern, look-alike houses, a neat and clean company store, a company hotel and a company restaurant. It is a place where you lose your home if you lose your job.

Down the hill lies the town we had entered, incorporated Clifton, one of the oldest settlements in Arizona and a hotbed of labor activism for decades. The unions were busted after a violent strike 10 years ago, the workforce was drastically reduced, and now Clifton is dying. Half its 5,000 people have already left and most of its shops have closed. Today Clifton has one restaurant and one or two bars, where heavy drinkers seem to pass both their days and nights.

Forlorn though it may be, Clifton is fortunate in a way. Two other towns - Metcalf and Old Morenci - have been swallowed up by the pit. And Clifton still has people who love it for what is and for what it was. Al, 92, and Harriett have lived in Clifton since before statehood. They took me down deserted Chase Creek and talked about its heyday - the streets crowded with miners coming from work and a wild mix of music emerging from the open doors of half a dozen saloons.

They and their stories touched me, and after a few months I came back to write a thesis on the mining district. Searching the archives of the Phelps Dodge mining company, I found a rich and colorful history, revealed in pictures of Mexican workers and woodcutters, of Welsh foremen, Italian masons, African-American families and Chinese shopowners.

There were also photographs of the tiny corpses of children who had died from disease-infested water. There were pictures of smeltermen amidst the noise and danger of heavy machinery; pictures of miners with pneumatic drills, which would bring them silicosis and an early death. And there were stories of the many minorities that were discriminated against and would nevertheless discriminate against each other, all helpless against the company because they were unable to unite.

I had come from Germany in search of the American West and I had found it. But it smelled of hardship instead of romance, of endurance instead of adventure.

My goal was to do an academic thesis, but I also fell in love, both with Clifton and with its stubborn people. I started to imagine the town renovated and alive, with crowds once again strolling down Chase Creek and with music in bars and restaurants.

But while Phoenix and Aspen and Las Vegas boom, Clifton decays. Its tax base has declined to nearly nothing. Local activists try to secure state or federal grants to maintain the town and restore at least some of the many historic buildings. But the outside help they get is never enough to create lasting change.

People with a vision, even early in this century, had plans to make the region less dependent on mining. Dell Potter, a local rancher and entrepreneur, lobbied to route the first transcontinental highway through Clifton. When this failed, he and some friends dreamed of a mineral spa, fed by the geothermal waters that accompany the ore body. Others wanted to attract retirees to Clifton, but there is no hospital, no colorful cultural life any more and nothing much in the way of amenities.

In Europe, the government would take charge. It would tax prosperous regions to support ailing rural communities. It would grant low-interest loans and other investment incentives to companies which help diversify the local economy and bring new jobs. The idea would be to preserve a rural community and to lure some economic growth away from congested and polluted metropolitan areas.

But Clifton, U.S.A., is largely left to itself. Because its resources are so few, it hasn't even been able to trade on its appearance and turn into a tourist mecca like Tombstone, Silverton or Virginia City. It has kept its character and its ugly-duckling charm, at a cost of slow but steady decline.

Up the hill, in New Morenci, few people worry about Clifton. The streets are busy and the houses tidy, maintained by the mining company. But this town is little more than a false front that will shatter on the very day, a few decades away, when the last copper is mined from the huge Morenci ore body.

Many of the miners today live in Safford, Thatcher or Duncan, some 40 miles away. They would rather commute two hours every day than buy and repair the old, worn and leaking houses in Clifton. When shifts change at the mine a line of cars winds its way through Clifton, bumper-to-bumper, just passing through.

As I think of Clifton today, I sense that one sobering lesson remains to be learned before I can even start to understand the American West. Al, the oldest friend that I have, will be gone some day. Harriett now walks with a stick. One of these years I will come back to Clifton and they won't be around anymore. And I feel that Al's simple, down-to-earth prophecy will come true in the end: "All that will be left is a hole in the ground." A hole two miles wide and three miles long.

Udo Zindel was a visiting journalist at HCN in August 1993. He lives in Stuttgart, Germany.

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