Sensing Change: An Arizona Mining Town Hangs On To Its Past
March 29, 2011

Arizona Town Hangs On To Its Past

Photos from Clifton, AZ.

Throughout much of the first decade of this century, Arizona was one of the fastest growing states in the country. But at least one Arizona county along the New Mexico border actually lost people.

That story becomes clear in Clifton, Arizona, a mining town that is smaller than it was when it was first settled.

The locals have a saying: The only thing that changes is the mountains. Everything else stays just about the same.

The census counts 3,300 people living in this tiny town. That came as a surprise to Don Lunt, the town historian.

oughout much of the first decade of this century, Arizona was one of the fastest growing states in the country. But at least one Arizona county along the New Mexico border actually lost people.

That story becomes clear in Clifton, Arizona, a mining town that is smaller than it was when it was first settled.

The locals have a saying: The only thing that changes is the mountains. Everything else stays just about the same.

The census counts 3,300 people living in this tiny town. That came as a surprise to Don Lunt, the town historian.

"I didn't think it would be that high," he said with a grin. "Thirty three, you say?"

Clifton sits at the base of the largest copper mine in the country. In 1910, it had nearly 5,000 people. Since then, the numbers have gone up a little, then down a bit, based on the price of copper and the needs of the mine. Mostly, the numbers have dropped. What's really lost out has been prosperity.

"During World War II, we had ten grocery stores in Clifton. Right after the war, we had different … Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Studebaker, Nash, had all those dealerships," Lunt said. "Today, we have one used car lot up here. That's the extent of it."

The neighboring towns were swallowed up when the mine went open-pit decades ago. John Decker is a building contractor who's lived in Clifton most of his life.

"Up by the horseshoe, was King Mountain," Decker said. "It's gone. It's gone. It's been mined out. I struggle with that a little bit, for it to just disappear. But what're you gonna do."

The horseshoe is the town's single highway, winding up the mountain.

Now, the little town looks trapped in the past and abandoned. Old black and white photographs show more people on the street back then than there is today. Even the town manager, Alan Baker, calls this place a living ghost town.

Take a walk along Chase Creek Street near the train station. The street is narrow; meant for horses, not cars. The wooden balconies on the Old West buildings are collapsing. Rotting doors are boarded up.

Walk up the street a bit, you'll hit Clifton's only bar, The Cave. The creaking door opens and Blue Oyster Cult's "Fear the Reaper" blasts out into the still air. The ceiling here's so low, you have to resist the urge to duck.

It's enormous inside and utterly devoid of customers except for a bleary-eyed Mexican man who glowers at you and stumbles outside. Former mayor Mike Mitchell owns the place, the family's owned it for three generations.

Sometimes he wonders how Clifton survives.

"We consider Circle K our Clifton mall. The Dollar Store is our Wal-Mart," he said, chuckling.

To make matters worse, two years ago, nearly 3,000 people lost their jobs at the mines here when copper prices fell from four dollars a pound to just a dollar fifty.

But things may be coming back.

Decker, the building contractor, leads the way into a darkened theater next to what was once a whorehouse. He is remodeling the building. A century ago this was a fancy opera house in a whole other world. The tables still sit in the giant room, covered in tarps. The high windows are covered in dust.

"They would sit here at their tables and stuff and...opera," he said.

The floors and ceilings are still in good shape. Decker wants to turn it into a bed and breakfast with a bar and a restaurant on the first floor.

"This building restored will be beautiful inside," he said.

Now investors are quietly moving in; out-of-towners rebuilding downtown for tourism. Ray West drives up from Phoenix to rebuild a 100 year old dress shop and an antique store in the old downtown.

"You don't find too many towns like this one anymore that are still affordable," West said, sitting on the front steps of the dress shop. "This one's still in the affordable range and it's just cuter than heck."