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Jerome mining camp was once “The wickedest town in the West”

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Jerome, Arizona’s historic mining town, is perched on the side of Cleopatra Hill, where some of the world’s richest copper ore was extracted. The area’s rich colourful copper-bearing minerals were known to ancient inhabitants. In this area, the Hohokam lived and farmed. When the area was explored in 1585 by conquistadors looking for gold cities, they discovered rich copper ore. They moved on because their goal was gold, not copper.

The historic mining town of Jerome offers a glimpse into the past, whether approaching from Verde Valley and climbing up SR89A, or approaching from the top of Mingus Mountain and down into the switchbacks of town. Either option is a quick day trip from Phoenix, but an extended stay in the historic town of Jerome may be worth the time to see one of Arizona’s most unique destinations.

The first mining claims were filed in 1876, and seven years later, in 1883, the newly formed United Verde Copper Company took control of the operations, naming the growing camp Jerome after one of the financiers, Eugene Jerome of New York City.

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During a five-year period in the late 1800s, four devastating fires ravaged the town’s main areas. The mountain town needed a fire department, and they had to incorporate to get one. Jerome became a town with established building codes and a well-organized fire department in 1899. Jerome was one of the first towns to adopt fire-safe building codes.

Between the late 1880s and the early 1950s, Jerome was a thriving mining town, and it survived the mass exodus of residents when the local mine closed in the 1950s. A few hardy souls remained in the abandoned ‘ghost town,’ and the town evolved into the tourist destination it is today over the next few decades. There was a time when the town was known for being unruly. When the New York Sun declared it “the wickedest town in the West” in 1903, it was dubbed “the Wickedest Town in the West.” There was a large red-light district, numerous saloons, and even an opium den, so they had reason to be concerned. There was also an opera house and up to fourteen Chinese restaurants open!

When striking mineworkers received the strong arm of the mine owners in July of 1917, the nation’s attention was drawn to Jerome. Armed vigilantes, led by Phelps Dodge mine owners, rounded up 67 striking miners, loaded them into railroad cattle cars, and shipped them out of the state to Needles, California, leaving them without food. More than 1000 strikers were hauled off and left stranded in the Mexican desert in a similar round-up in Bisbee. Although no one was ever convicted in connection with the deportations, the actions were investigated by a presidential commission, which concluded that the deportations were “wholly illegal and without authority in law, either State or Federal.”

Despite this, Jerome prospered as the demand for copper increased. It was at its peak in the 1920s, with a population of around 15,000 people. When the Great Depression struck in the early 1930s, it slowed down the mining industry. By that point, the place had started to go downhill, both literally and metaphorically.

Exacerbated by blast vibrations from mine activity, geologic fault activity caused dozens of buildings to slide down the incline as the earth beneath them gave way. The problem grew worse over time.

During World War II, there was a surge in copper demand, but after the war ended, demand slowed, and the mine closed in 1953. When the population of Jerome fell to around 50 to 100 people, the town was dubbed a ghost town. The federal government designated Jerome as a National Historic District in 1967. With a population of around 450 people, Jerome is now a thriving tourist and artist community.

Artists, craftsmen, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, antique stores, bars, wine tasting rooms, museums, and gift shops now call Jerome home. The architecture is preserved from the early nineteenth century, and there are numerous opportunities to discover quirky corners and hangouts!

The Jerome Grand Hotel is the first prominent building that stands out as you enter town on SR89A from the top of Mingus Mountain. It is located at the top of the town, providing guests with some of the best views in the area! The Jerome State Historic Park (link) is housed in the old owner’s home, the Douglas mansion, beneath the town’s slopes. This facility tells the entire story of Jerome’s history.

You’ll find unique interests around every corner as you wind your way through the town’s streets, but remember to wear comfortable shoes because the majority of your time wandering will be spent walking up or down!

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