the history of clifton

By Robert A. Chilicky and Gerald D. Hunt

Army scouts were on the trail of marauding Apaches, but the elusive renegades were always a step ahead.  The soldiers were tracking them up a small stream in a narrow canyon, later named Chase Creek.  One of the scouts, Robert Metcalfe, noted that the water in the canyon was heavily mineralized and tasted foul.  He observed that the canyon walls had copper out-croppings, and there were indications of primitive mining.  Having had mining experience in New Mexico, Metcalfe was familiar with identifying promising mineral deposits. The hostile Indians were his first priority, so he made note of the location, vowing he would return.  That he did, along with his brother James and a party of adventurous miners and businessmen eager to prospect for valuable metals.

The area was first known as Goulding’s Camp, named for one of the early miners.  The town of Clifton was founded in 1873, as the miners settled along the canyon’s stream banks near the confluence of the San Francisco River and Chase Creek.  Mining companies were formed and many claims were staked out and developed. The largest mine at the time was the Longfellow, which was about three miles up Chase Creek Canyon. Businessmen Henry and Charles Lesinsky owned many claims and their success helped Clifton grow quickly as they expanded their mining and smelting operations.  Experiencing limited smelting success with their first adobe furnaces, in 1874 the Longfellow Copper Mining Company built a larger and more efficient smelter where Chase Creek emptied into the San Francisco River.  The Arizona Copper Company purchased the Longfellow group in 1882, and continued expanding and making improvements to the smelter complex.  In 1902, the Shannon Copper Company built a smelter and concentrator on Cemetery Hill (now called Shannon Hill) to refine ore from Metcalf.  The Arizona Copper Company, headquartered in Scotland, built a new smelter in 1913. It was located two miles south of Clifton and replaced the Chase Creek facility. It incorporated modern smelting techniques and improved the air quality in town.  The neighboring towns of Metcalf and Morenci were also full of mining activity, contributing to the success of the district’s mining industry.

As Clifton grew, so too did its importance in the area’s economy, governance, and social life.  Many businesses grew and flourished. The Clifton Mineral Hot Springs and Bath House attracted people from across the region seeking out the natural healing properties of Clifton’s thermal springs, which fed directly into the facility.  Businesses in town benefited from a steady flow of patrons ready to spend their hard-earned wages.  Clifton’s rich social life and entertainment opportunities compared favorably with much larger cities.  Its opera houses and theatres welcomed national and world renowned talent to its stages.  With the creation of Greenlee County in 1909, voters soon selected Clifton as county seat.  The courthouse and jail were completed in South Clifton in 1912, making the town the center of local government.  In 1926 a new state highway, known as the Coronado Trail, was completed, connecting Clifton to Alpine and beyond.  It gave people greatly expanded opportunities to travel and enjoy the beauty of the area.

The proud history of Clifton is centered on mining.  Copper is the life blood of the town and the incredibly rich ore body is still flourishing, even after 140 plus years of nearly continuous operation. 

 Click here to purchase Chilicky and Hunt's excellent book on the history of Clifton 


 Clifton smelter circa 1880.  Today’s Circle K is located roughly in the middle of this picture.  Photo courtesy of the Greenlee County Historical Society. 


 The Shannon Copper Company smelter on Shannon Hill, was in operation from 1901 to about 1920.  Photo courtesy of the Greenlee County Historical Society. 


 Copper Avenue, later called Chase Creek, is shown here around 1910.  The trusty burro was widely used for many years, as the one seen here.  The section of town was an important social and economic center for the community and district. Photo courtesy of the Greenlee County Historical Society. 


The Arizona Copper Company smelter south of Clifton processed ore in the later years of the company.  This facility processed ore from Douglas for a time as well.  The original road between Clifton and Duncan is at the extreme bottom right.   Photo courtesy of Jackie Norton. 


South Clifton around 1915.  The main points are from bottom left:  company baseball field, next to the field is the Arizona Copper Company store, center left is the Clifton Armory, at the base of the mountain at right center is the South Clifton School, to the right of that is the county courthouse and jail, and at the extreme right is Clifton High School.  Photo courtesy of the Greenlee County Historical Society. 


 his view of Shannon Hill is around 1915.  The tall building next to the river is the Princess Theatre, one of the several venues for plays and shows.  The Shannon Hill School is near the hill’s edge and behind the school to the right is the Shannon Copper Company General Store.  Photo courtesy of the Greenlee County Historical Society.