Perched high atop Cleopatra Hill overlooking the Verde Valley is the historic mining camp of Jerome, Arizona. Once a thriving copper mining town, Jerome has survived by becoming a mecca for artists and tourists.
Like most places in Arizona, the area was first inhabited by Native Americans, as far back as 1100 A.D. There were several groups of ancient Indians that thrived in the Verde Valley, including the Hohokam tribe and later the Sinagua at Tuzigoot. The Mogollon and Saluda occupied nearby regions of Arizona during much of the same time. By the early 1400s, the Sinagua Indians had abandoned the valley, but no one knows exactly why. By the time the Spanish explorers came to the region in 1582, the Yavapai Indians were settled there.
Always on the lookout for precious metals, the Spanish enticed the Yavapai to lead them to their mine, which was little more than a 16-foot cave-like pit in the area that is now Jerome. The Yavapai used the copper metal for die to paint their faces, clothes, and blankets. But, the Spanish weren’t interested in copper. In their quest for gold and silver, they soon abandoned the Indians. Through the years, a few lone prospectors worked in the area, but the Indians were left relatively alone until the 1850s. After the Mexican-American war ended in 1848 and the region became part of the United States, more and more Anglo-Americans began to settle the area. In came ranchers, homesteaders, and more prospectors. In 1863, gold was discovered near Prescott and thousands of miners flooded the region.
In an attempt to protect themselves from the encroaching white settlers, the Yavapai, who had previously been peaceful, began to band together in an attempt to safeguard their land and food supplies. Hostilities broke out between the Indians and the settlers. After the Civil War, the U.S. Cavalry was sent in to subdue the Indians until the Yavapai were completely defeated by General George Crook in the fall and winter of 1872-1873. What was left of the tribe was sent to the Camp Verde Reservation and later to the San Carlos Reservation.
By the 1880s investors began to see the potential in copper and a number of mines were established, including the United Verde Copper Company in 1882. Owned by Territorial Governor, Frederick Tritle, the governor obtained financing from New York investors, James McDonald and Eugene Jerome, for whom the town was named. The town boomed for the next year until the price of copper plummeted and the mine was forced to close. Though it caused a number of people to leave, the town hung on and continued to grow slowly. By September 1883, a post office was established, which has never closed.
In 1888, William A. Clark, who had long owned several claims in the area, bought the United Verde Copper Company for $80,000.00. The ingenious entrepreneur began to make a number of improvements, including bringing in a narrow-gauge railroad from Jerome Junction, that connected with Ash Fork, and eventually the Santa Fe, Prescott, & Phoenix Railroad. The narrow-gauge line operated from 1895 to 1920, making its way through 187 curves and 28 bridges on its 27-mile run.
Over the years, Clark expanded his operation with a surface plant in Jerome, a tunnel transfer system known as the “Hopewell Tunnel,” new loading facilities at Hope, and more standard gauge railroads. Within seven years of purchasing the United Verde Copper Company, Clark was netting some $1 million per month in revenue.
In the meantime, the town of Jerome was bustling and by 1899 had become the fifth-largest city in the territory. The same year, the town was incorporated, with one of its primary focuses being to specify building codes.
Requiring brick or masonry construction, the laws were instituted to end the frequent fires that plagued Jerome previously. Filled with wooden buildings, two blocks of the commercial district burned in 1894 and more fires blazed businesses in 1897, 1898 and 1899. One interesting tale of the 1897 fire was when a madam of one of the local brothels ran into the street in a panic, offering free “business” to the entire fire department from then on if they would save her house. Not surprisingly, the house was saved.
Typical of many bustling mining camps, Jerome quickly gained a reputation of a rough and rowdy town, with its many saloons, gambling dens, and brothels, so much so that on February 5, 1903, the New York Sun proclaimed Jerome to be “the wickedest town in the West.”
Though incorporating the town brought official organization, a fire department, and a police force, it didn’t slow its vices and wicked reputation. In fact, the chaos increased with even more prostitution, alcohol, gambling, drug abuse, and gunfights in the streets as the population continued to grow.
Continuing to expand and improve his mining operations, Clark began building another railroad in 1911, which connected the Verde Valley to Drake, Arizona. Spending some $1.3 million dollars to build the 38-mile Verde Valley Railroad, the line, operated by the Santa Fe, Prescott & Phoenix Railroad was built in just one year.
A miracle of engineering, it took 250 men, 200 mules, and hundreds of pounds of explosives to lay the rails. Still operating today, the Verde Canyon Railroad provides a four-hour scenic train ride through the towering red rock pinnacles of Verde Canyon, through two national forests, passes by Indian ruins, and through a 680-foot man-made tunnel.
When World War I began, the price of copper soared and it was then that the town really boomed, boasting some 15,000 people. From all over the world, immigrants came to the copper mines that were operating 24 hours a day. A number of hotels were built for the sole purpose of housing the miners, who often rented them in eight-hour shifts. Many of the town’s businesses also operated around the clock – especially those of the more “shady” variety – including eight brothels, 21 saloons, and numerous and opium dens. However, the more “civilized” folk also built three movie theaters, schools, swimming pools, bowling alleys, restaurants, churches, and an opera house.