America’s desert southwest is an unforgiving place. Between scorching summers and frigid winters, with too little rain in either, life is challenging. There are reminders of failed attempts all around, from cow skulls and cactus skeletons, to rusted-out cars in the middle of nowhere, all slowly camouflaging themselves to the color of the desert landscape. And yet, those who call the region home have an undeniable fondness, pride even, for their ghost towns. And few have had a better boom to bust than Jerome, Arizona.
Founded in 1876, Jerome sits atop Cleopatra Hill in northern Arizona, just about halfway between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon. Life began for Jerome as a copper mining camp, which grew to become one of the largest cities in the Arizona Territory. In the 1920s, the population had swelled to 15,000 and miners were pulling as much as three million pounds of copper out of the mountain every month. After World War Two, however, demand for copper dropped quickly, as did production at the mine. Phelps Dodge, one of Arizona’s largest mining companies, closed the mine 1953, and the few remaining residents – less than 100 by then – began to promote their city as the largest ghost town in America.
For decades, Jerome clung to life. In 1967, the area was designated a National Historic District, attracting tourists and a few artists, craftsmen, and historians. Today the permanent populate is near 450 and includes restaurateurs, bed and breakfast operators, and gallery and gift shop owners catering to visitors. Many of the buildings they operate in today are part of the original 1900s construction, including the Douglas Mansion, built by mining magnate “Rawhide Jimmy” Douglas in 1916. The mansion today is home to the Jerome State Historic Park, and includes a museum focused on the Douglas family, the city, and the area’s mining industry. By the way, the Douglas Mansion still stands as the largest adobe structure in Arizona.
So why was it the Wickedest Town in the West? If popular history is to be believed, the prospectors, miners, and frontiersmen who lived in mining camps throughout the American west were a particularly rough and rowdy bunch. And typically, where you have a camp full of hard working men, a hotel filled with “hard working women” is soon to follow. A tour of Jerome would not be complete without a visit to the back alley known as Prostitution Row. Coupled with saloons and gambling, Jerome had its fair share, if not more, of vice and wickedness. Perhaps not surprisingly, the city jail is one of several buildings that eventually gave in to gravity and slid off its foundation. (Being built on a hill, there is an average 30-degree slope which buildings must accommodate.)
At one point, Jerome actually has a suburb or sorts. Just as Jerome was built on a mine, another claim about a mile north had failed to produce much copper, but miners did find gold! Soon, the hamlet of Haynes sprung up and, just as quickly, died away once the mine dried up. Today, the historic Gold King Mine and Ghost Town operates as a tourist attraction offering a walk into one of the mine shafts, along with a mining museum, petting “zoo” and a collection of, as they put it, “thirty years of great stuff.” (Which includes what is purportedly the largest gas engines in the world.)
While Jerome’s historic Main Street is fun to wander, there is much more to see only slight further away. In nearby Clarkdale is the Verde Canyon Railroad, and the ancient Tuzigoot Pueblo National Memorial. (If you like Native American art and crafts, the Tuzigoot gift shop is not to be missed.) Internationally known Sedona is less than an hour from Jerome, with the Red Rocks State Park and the striking Chapel of the Holy Cross. From Sedona, head north and you’ll arrive at the Grand Canyon National Park in just about two hours.
From the Wickedest Town in the West to America’s Largest Ghost Town, to a great stopping point (or base camp) along Arizona’s famed Highway 89, known for unparalleled beauty and fall color, Jerome turns out shine brighter than any of the precious and semi-precious metals pulled from its mines.
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