Photo by Marilyn Alvidrez Varming
Herbert Eugene Bolton, the noted authority on Coronado’s 1540 entrada into
Arizona, believed the Conquistador's true trail from the Gila River to angle off
toward Fort Apache, thence toward McNary and St. Johns. Others, with convincing
reference to plausible landmarks, still hold out for Clifton and the Rio San Francisco.
While the final truth may remain unknown, the split opinion brings to mind the remarks
of Pedro de Casteneda, chronicleer of the expedition: “Granted, he did not
find the treasure of Cibola, he found the treasure lay in his footsteps”.
In any event, more than three hundred years passed by before the Clifton treasure
house was opened. Remoteness, hostile Apache bands, as well as legal questions,
unresolved until the Gadsden Purchase all contributed, in one way or another, to
the wait. Then in 1864, Henry Clifton, Recorder of the Hassayampa Mining District,
and for whom the city of Clifton is thought to be named, learned of placer mining
in the area and journeyed overland. There, among the cliffs and canyons where Chase
Creek joins the San Francisco, he found signs of copper, but gold and silver were
still the metals sought, and the copper went undeveloped. The placers were there,
but they produced very little, they were run by a handful of Mexican Nationals and
remnants of Carelton's men from the California column.
However, in 1870, the growing demand for copper brought a renewal of exploration.
Soon the town of Metcalf arose upon Chase Creek, five miles to the north. The Longfellow
Mine was opened, and when Henry Lesinsky brought this and other nearby claims, the
stone smelter he constructed on the spot proved to small and a larger one was built
at Clifton, where waterpower was available. Once established as a smelter site and
as a trans-shipment point for copper, Clifton’s future was assured.
Very early, in 1879, Clifton claimed the distinction of possessing the first steam-powered
railroad in Arizona-making runs between the Longfellow Mine and the Clifton smelter.
In the early eighties, the railhead of the Arizona and New Mexico Railroad was extended
from Lordsburg, and Clifton became a terminus. Along with the boost to civic pride
and economic well being, this development ended the difficult and dangerous haulage
by mule and wagon, which were often attacked by Apache ambush.
In spite of the attacks, floods, mine fires, and the coarse standard for the mining
camps of that day were easily taken in stride by the people of Clifton. At one point,
in fact, during its years of lusty, roaring growth, it was known as being the second
toughest town in the west. The community standing first in this honor was not specified.
But changes comes to all things, be they natural or man-made. In time the high-grade
ore-twenty percent and more at the Longfellow - was depleted, and the direct-smelting
process became uneconomical. To meet this problem, various forms of concentrators
were constructed, and during the Depression years the flotation process, now in
use by Phelps Dodge, was developed to exploit the very-low grade ores of the Morenci
Pit, then in the planning stage. Since the erection of this vast complex on the
hilltops of Morenci, the role of Clifton has changed. No longer directly involved
in the physical process, the town, with characteristic enterprise, has evolved into
a trading center for the ranching and farming regions lying southward.
And perhaps its brightest future lies in its attraction as a tourist center. As
the natural gateway to the Coronado Trail, it is also the entrance to Arizona's
most remote and splendid recreational area. Since tourism's value has increased
by leaps and bounds each year, it is not out of reason to think that it may one
day exceed that of all of Clifton's earlier hey days rolled together.