The first mineral discoveries in the Clifton-Morenci District were made around 1856
when a group of California volunteers pursuing renegade Apache Indians came through
the area and wrote about the colorful mineral outcrops. In 1872 a group of soldiers
from New Mexico were seeking renegade Indians, among the group were Joe Yankie,
Robert and James Metcalf. They later returned to the area searching for placer gold.
Although very little gold was found, they located the Longfellow, Arizona Central
and Metcalf claims which later become the mines around the town of Metcalf and Morenci.
Two mining companies were organized in the Clifton-Morenci District in the early
1870's; the Longfellow Copper Company (which later became the Arizona Copper Company)
and the Detroit Copper Company (later became Phelps Dodge, Morenci Branch). The
first ore mined from the Longfellow mine assayed as high as 80% copper, and averaged
20% copper over the first 10 years of mining. The first copper furnace was built
in Chase Creek, about 800 feet below the Longfellow Mine so the ore had to be lowered
by cable in ore cars. Horse and mule-drawn wagons transported ore before the coming
of the railroad in 1879. They hauled in all supplies and carried out the limited
amount of copper from the crude smelters. The wagons then hauled the copper to the
railroads that carried them to markets as far away as San Francisco and Kansas City
or Kit Carson, Colorado, which was the nearest railroad.
Photo from Phelps Dodge/Greenlee County Historical Society
Although the ore contained very high copper grades, the early mining in the district
had three major problems. The early smelters lasted only a few weeks (sometimes
only days) before they had to be rebuilt. The transportation costs of the ore from
the mine to the smelters, to the railhead for delivery and then to the market were
expensive and often unreliable. The constant threat of Indian raids often caused
temporary production losses.
Early mining by the Detroit Copper Company ceased after a short time because of
the dangers of Indian raids and the remoteness of the mines. It was reactivated
a few years later with the arrival of William Church. In 1880, Church decided to
build a smelter to handle the ore from his mines. He didn't have the required capital,
so he went to New York to seek a loan. On a historic day in 1881, Church entered
the office of Phelps Dodge and Company in New York City and asked for a loan. Phelps
Dodge at this time was not in the mining business, but rather involved in exporting
commodities such as cotton, and importing metals, primarily tin, copper, brass,
and zinc. Phelps Dodge did not immediately extend the loan, but asked Dr. James
Douglas, a renowned metallurgist to examine Church's claims. Douglas reported favorably
and recommended that Phelps Dodge invest in mining properties in Bisbee, Arizona
that same years. Because of Douglas favorable report, Phelps Dodge and Company advanced
$50,000 to Church and became part owners of the Detroit Mining Company. The year
1881 thus became the year Phelps Dodge entered Morenci and began mining copper.
In 1882, the Detroit Copper Company smelter was shut down because an Apache Indian
raid killed several workers, stole the supplies and left the smelter riddled with
bullet holes. Because of the difficulties with the Indians, the high cost of ore
transportation to the smelter in Clifton, the smelter was relocated in 1883 closer
to the mining in Copper Mountain. As part of the move the name "Morenci" was given
to this new area, replacing the old name of "Joy's Camp".
In 1892, the Detroit Copper Company was forced to shut down because the price of
copper dropped to six cents per pound. An attempt to start back by building a concentrator
to handle lower grade sulfide copper ore was unsuccessful. In 1897, Church sold
the remainder of the Detroit Copper Company to Phelps Dodge and Company for $1,600,000.
Underground mining was renewed, a new concentrator was built and the Company again
The three major operators in the early 1900's were the Detroit, the Arizona, and
the Shannon Copper Companies. In the towns of Metcalf were the Arizona and Shannon
Copper Company mines; Morenci had the Arizona Copper Company mines and concentrator,
and the Detroit Copper Company mines, concentrator and smelter. Clifton with the
Arizona Copper Company and the Shannon Copper Company concentrators and smelters
were all thriving.
In 1921, Phelps Dodge became sole owner of the entire mining District through its
purchase of the Arizona Copper Company which had been the largest copper operation
in the Clifton-Morenci District since 1882. Most of the ore mined by the underground
methods after 1921 was sulfide copper ore from the Humboldt Mine and assayed 2%
to 4% copper. By 1928 and 56 years of operation, the Morenci district had produced
almost two billion pounds of copper.
Between 1928 and 1930, Phelps Dodge drilled many test holes in the "Clay" deposits.
Although huge tonnages of ore were indicated, the grade of the ore was too low to
be mined profitably by underground methods. In 1932, all underground mining ended
in Morenci because the depression had dropped copper prices to less than six cents
In 1937 mining was again started in Morenci, not by underground methods, but rather
by open pit methods. Stripping of waste from the top of the ore body lasted until
1942 when the first ore was delivered to the new Morenci concentrator and a new
era of mining in the Morenci district began.