Jerome, AZ and its Ghosts

Jerome, AZ is thriving on its ghosts.

This town sits atop 5200’ tall Cleopatra Hill in central Arizona. It also sits – or perhaps I should say sat – atop a wealth of natural resources. Over 33 million tons of ore were removed from Jerome’s three mines between 1876 and 1953. The veins of copper that ran beneath this community were among the richest ever found.

Jerome’s population exceeded 15,000 during the mining heyday of the 1920’s. At that time, the town center boasted five car dealerships, multiple churches, tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a city park. It also had an unusually large number of bars, casinos, and brothels; the city’s inhabitants were 78% male. By 1930, they were also 60% Mexican.

When the price of copper plummeted in 1930, the mines cut back, and people moved away. By 1953, the last of the mines had closed, and the town population had dropped to somewhere between fifty and one hundred. After the town was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1967, the few residents still living there shifted their focus to tourism.

Quite a bit of this tourism focuses on ghosts – both figurative and literal. In the figurative sense, the town’s main appeal is the rough-and-tumble saloon and brothel image its old shops and buildings embody. One house of prostitution still stands, as does the jail down the street. An unusually high number of bars still operate in town, given Jerome’s current population of 450, and there are a few inns and B & B’s that capture the late-1800’s architecture of the original settlement.

And then there are the literal ghosts. Jerome is said to be haunted; whether that rumor started elsewhere or was propagated by a few ambitious residents is uncertain.

Regardless, there are at least two companies running “ghost tours” in Jerome. Their half-day and full-day excursions focus on the mining accidents, suicides, and murders that took place during the town’s checkered past. Some of these are walking tours, while others involve riding in vans with ghosts emblazoned on the doors. One feature they all share is the complimentary use of EMF detectors during the tour – gadgets designed to read the changes in electromagnetic fields that some people associate with the presence of paranormal activity.

Whether Jerome is haunted or not is unclear; that it is staying alive on stories about the dead is unquestionable. And it is definitely staying alive.

The first time I tried to visit the town, I was with my mother. It was a sunny Saturday in September, and we took four laps through the narrow, winding streets looking for parking before we gave up. The day I returned for my photographic mission was a cloudy Wednesday in November; I wasn’t making the same mistake twice. When I arrived, I easily found parking, but the streets were full of baby boomers tasting wine, eating out on patios, browsing the impressive array of galleries and public art on display, shopping for skull kitsch and inquiring about haunted building tours.  It’s a vibrant, creative place these days – one where you can easily spend a full afternoon and a lot of money.

Meanwhile, multiple structures in town are supposedly sliding downhill, thanks to the geologic fault they sit on, the aftereffects of the decades of underground mining that took place, and the loss of vegetation on the town’s steep hillsides – a result of years of toxic smelter smoke.

These doomed buildings serve as a good reminder that while mining operations have left behind a glamorous boomtown legacy, these same mines have also poisoned they places they profited from.

The real ghosts may be the ones creeping around in the town’s water supply, or the ones pushing the entire settlement down the hill. I don’t think the EMF devices will detect those, but I suspect that time will.

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