Crops & Cattle. While Clifton-Morenci mining activities were on the rise, the Gila Valley drew homesteaders and new ranches the late 1870’s. The towns of Richmond and Purdy, now Virden and Duncan, were established alongside the banks of the Gila River. 1884 saw the beginning of the XXX Ranch alongside the Blue River. The ranching community of Whittum, now Blue, was settled in 1878. Apache Indians were a constant threat to the Upper Gila Valley and lower Blue River regions. To ensure settler’s safety, the government deployed soldiers to patrol the area.
Precious Minerals. Minerals were first discovered in 1856 and marked the beginnings of mining communities such as Camp Joy (aka: Joy’s Camp). Prospecting began in 1860 in the district then known as Steeple Rock (Carlisle). In 1862 sporadic placer mining claims for gold and silver took place. During the 1870s copper company claims sprang up after the arrival of Captain Chase and his scouting expedition that included Robert and Jim Metcalf. Within the year, many companies including the Metcalf brother’s Longfellow Copper Co. were established. Mason Greenlee, an early-day mining man from Colorado, arrived in 1871 with about twenty others. They stayed most of the winter, but returned to Colorado when the Apaches became troublesome. Greenlee was impressed with the gold prospects he had come to know and was determined to return. He sold his valuable mine in Colorado and returned to Clifton in 1878 where he would live out his remaining days.
By Way of Rails. Rail use to the area was introduced when the Coronado Railroad was completed in 1879 along the bed of Chase Creek with the help of Chinese laborers who were brought here in 1877 to work the mines. In 1880, the first locomotive arrived — the Copper Head. That same year J. W. Evans changed the town of Clifton forever by building a smelter, storefronts, and new housing. The Arizona Copper Co., in need of connecting beyond the Clifton-Morenci Mining District, built a narrow-gauge railroad from Lordsburg, NM to Guthrie. This quickly changed to a standard-gauge railroad and tracks were built into Clifton. The new Arizona & New Mexico Railroad connected with the Southern Pacific Railroad at Lordsburg, NM.
The Towns. The copper mining towns of Clifton and Morenci and farming/ranching community of Duncan are what comprise Greenlee County in Eastern Arizona.
Almost 140 years ago, rich copper deposits were discovered in a canyon by the Metcalf brothers and mined by recruits from Mexico. Three large copper mining companies, the Arizona Copper Company, the Detroit Copper Company (later to become Phelps Dodge), and the Shannon Copper Company were operating in the area at once. The town of Metcalf rose up on Chase Creek where the Longfellow mine operated, five miles to the north of present day Clifton. A stone smelter was constructed in Clifton to process the copper ore and as a trans-shipment site for the copper. Clifton possessed the first steam-powered railroad in Arizona; making runs between the Longfellow Mine and the smelter and later became a railhead for the Arizona and New Mexico Railroad which ended the difficult and dangerous haulage by mule and wagon. In spite of attacks, floods, mine fires, and the tough living conditions, Clifton continued to grow. At one point it was known as the second toughest town in the West. But as in all things, change came and as the rich copper deposits were depleted in Metcalf, and the direct-smelting process became more economical to use to process the lower grade ore, smelting was transferred to the vast complex on the hilltops of Morenci and the mining of the Morenci Pit. Clifton’s role changed and continues to change. The town evolved into a trading center for the ranching and farming regions lying southward and is a current attraction for tourists as the natural gateway to the Coronado Trail and Arizona’s most remote and beautiful recreational area.
Morenci, born in 1872 as Joy’s Camp on Longfellow Hill, became the mover and shaker, the provider and the economic barometer of health for the region. “Let Morenci prosper, and the whole of Greenlee County thrived. Let Morenci falter, and the County mourned.” At the elevation of 4,836 feet, the layout of the town was nearly impossible to navigate. “Built against the sides of Longfellow Hill, the vertical alignment of building construction gained the town the distinction as one of the most dangerous in the United States. Far and near it came to be known as the town without a wheeled vehicle.” Deliveries were made by pack burro and ladder, and if one owned a car, it was parked at the bottom of the hill and one walked up the dirt paths. The Detroit Copper Company gained ownership of the district in 1921. A plaza was built surrounded by public buildings and the high school was located on the site of the old smelter. The football field was located on a slag dump and field goal balls were lost if kicked southward, disappearing into Morenci Canyon. Unfortunately, Morenci’s fate was sealed by the low-grade copper body hiding under the town site, and it would follow the fate of Metcalf. In 1928, the process for mining and extracting from the one percent copper ore was developed. In 1937, underground mining was abandoned and the Morenci Open Pit opened. In 1965, the dismantling of the old town began. The entire shopping district, hospital, hotel and homes were rebuilt in Plantsite. Morenci High School class of 1982 was the last to graduate from the old school which was the last building standing and last reminder of the old town. Old Morenci and Stargo housing are now gone, but will never be forgotten in pictures and the fond memories of those who lived there.
Duncan, only three miles from the New Mexico border and twenty miles from Clifton, is different from the mining towns, showing the contrasts of the region. This area belongs to the Gila, a river famous in Western history and tall tales. “Cliff dwellers, Conquistadors, Apache warriors, mountain-men, Western immigrants, bad men and good – each in their time, have traveled its banks.” The community was originally named Purdy and grew up around the stage and freight stations and the military posts built along the Gila. In 1882, the Arizona and New Mexico Railway built a narrow-gauge line, which ran from Clifton to Lordsburg, New Mexico, and both relocated the town to its present day site as a way station on the ore line, and renamed it Duncan. With the advent of rail travel, settlement of the valley increased rapidly, as farmers and ranchers moved in to cultivate the expanse of naturally irrigated land. Soon, Duncan became a shipping point for markets in the mid-west and the east. Duncan has been prospering along those lines ever since but it is first and foremost a rural community deriving its stability from the immensely rich and fertile Gila River Valley. “A high percentage of the families are in their third or fourth generation of residence in Duncan. If contentment and well-being are valid hallmarks of the good life, then Duncan, in the valley of the river of the sun, has going for it all that anyone could want.”
Greenlee County was established in 1909, splitting from Graham County after mining interests persuaded the Legislature to do so. Greenlee County Courthouse was built in 1911 in what is known today as South Clifton and is the oldest functioning courthouse in Arizona.
Today, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. continues the mining legacy in Greenlee County.