Jerome Arizona Copper Mines —
It was a flash of an orangish metallic vein in a rock outcrop near Cleopatra Hill that transformed a mountain top into a wide open, gaping, billion dollar hole in the earth. As the old story goes: a 19th century white guy just happens to notice an Indian trail one day that he hadn’t noticed before, he follows it to see where it goes, it leads to fortune.
The flash of orangish metal — the fortune — was copper.
The original stakers of the mining claim apparently did not turn up jack shit so they sold their mining rights to the United Verde Mining Corporation for a penance. They promptly cashed in on their meager investment and turn out one of the most lucrative deposits of copper ore that the world has ever known.
And in came the miners, the whores, the booze, the brawls, Mexican town, Chinese opium tunnels, Croatians: Jerome, Arizona.
“The wickedest city in the west.”
Laying just shy of Sedona and Flagstaff to the southwest, the town was a beacon to anyone wishing to stake a shot at fortune or to engage themselves in subterranean toil, or, apparently, just to be a scoundrel.
The men were miners, and digging holes in search of precious metals is what they did. They dug the shit out of the mountain that Jerome sits upon.
“What do bored miners do?” my friend Abe, who use to run reconnaissance down into the mines for the modern Phelps Dodge mining operation, asked me rhetorically. “They dig holes,” Abe answered. He continued, “What do they teach their children?” a rhetorical question was again put forth, “To dig holes,” he again answered. “This is how they make their living . . . Many of the miners who worked in the mines would also have their own claims that they would work on their own, always looking for their own bonanza.”
And thus the town of Jerome sits upon Cleopatra Hill like a thin wrapper over top of a block of Swiss Cheese. Beneath it, is all holes.
My family and I drove out to the old Jerome mines as our hosts Abe and Annie gave us a place of refuge in their home, and an impromptu historical tour of the mines of the wicked town on the hill. From the late 19th century to the 1950’s, Jerome was a focal point for mining copper, silver, and gold, and a few very rich deposits were carved out of the rock beneath its surface.
We arrived at the UVX mine. It did not look like much. A couple of thirty foot high industrial pulleys stuck out of the earth, and a few abandon buildings were scattered about the pulleys. I was thus introduced to Jerome copper mining. It did not look like much. Abe told me that one of the pulleys lowered men into the mines and the other lifted up the ore. I tried to mutter a surprised, “Wow, those two lifts are big.”
Then Abe told me where the real action took place: in the 86 miles of tunnels beneath our feet. 86 miles is almost the distance from where we stood in mountainous Jerome to the desert capital of Phoenix, Arizona. I suppose mining implies that the action happens beneath the ground, to look at the surface is to only see the drudge, discards, and a few industrial pulleys. But below the surface is a complex network of mining thoroughfares, tunnels, cavities, and railroads.
I then became aware that I was viewing a virtual human ant hill as seen from the surface. The town of Jerome is just the mound of rubble that is caked on top of the subterranean thoroughfares of the colony — beneath a hill top surface which is no more than a couple miles in length and breath lays 86 miles of twisting, layered, mining tunnels and wide open cavities where copper ore was extracted. I stood upon the now abandoned catacomb in awe.
Abe then began pointing out where some of the main mining tunnels met the outside world. He pointed way off down the valley, miles into the distance, and explained that their was a major tunnel that began out there and when up through the mountain and exited in the town on the mountain above. Abe had walked through it once. He continued talking of underground trains and secret passageways. I imagined a city of 10,000 people moving around inside of the mountains, people sneaking underground from building to building, I thought of what it would be like to go down there . . .
We then drove over to the open pit mine which hugs downtown Jerome to the east. This was the town’s main mine, and the one that was in operation the longest. It, too, started out a few pulleys and a smelter standing on top of the surface, with a maze of mining shafts and tunnels below. But then a fire consumed the tunnels. It could not be extinguished for 20 years, the United Verde Mining Corporation fumbled while their investment smoldered. They called in some Spaniard mine fire specialist, they called everyone. Nothing worked.
So they removed the mountain.
Problem solved. They dug out the tunnels, dug out the fire, dug an open crater into the earth. The extraction of copper ore continued in the new open pit mine.
Abe pointed to a mountainous rise next to the open pit, “you see that over there,” I looked at the ledge of man deposited rubble and a huge mountain slope. He then told me that their were very large cavities inside of it that were mined out.”You could play football in there, there are huge buttresses going up the ceiling and everything.”
All I could see was the side of a mountain, but Abe had ventured into the world inside. I imagined a football field sized space inside of the massive hulk of rock. My view of Jerome was growing more and more akin to an abandoned ant farm as we spoke. I thought of the Uncle Milton’s set up that I had as a kid, and all of the tunnels and room cavities that the ants had dug before they all were killed off. This was Jerome.
Abe, himself, had been into the heart of this giant human ant colony. For a few years, he was the only person in the area who had the training to enter into the abandon mines, which ceased operation in the 1950’s. I asked him about the possibility of exploration — I wanted to go inside — and his reply was that it was too dangerous: the tunnels are now unstable, the air underground is stagnant and unfit to breathe. In short, it was clear that I would not be poking around in the old mines.
“Once you get around 1,000 feet down,” Abe continued to explain, “all of the tunnels are flooded.” He went on to tell me how the water is bright blue, but highly toxic. “It is basically sulfuric acid, if you were to toss a chicken in there it would be gone in twenty minutes.”
“You can get a really different perception of the world from going underground,” I spoke, remembering how I once wrote a story about spelunking under Budapest.
“Yeah,” Abe agreed, “you really get the worm’s eye view under there.”
Read more about Arizona on Vagabond Journey.com
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