Greenlee County is located in the southeastern part of Arizona. As of the census taken in 2010, the population of the county was just under 8,500 residents, which brands Greenlee County as the least populated county in the state. The area that is now Greenlee County was once part of Graham County. Graham County was originally part of both Pima County and Apache County, and was formed in 1881. This county was one of the first counties in Arizona not named after the local Native American tribes. It was named after Mount Graham, the highest peak in the area. The successful mining communities of Morenci and Clifton, which were located in Graham County at the time, felt that they were paying the majority of taxes, but were not being fairly represented by the elected officials representing them. At this time, the towns of Safford and Solomonville were where the majority of officials were elected. The Arizona Copper Company, the Detroit Copper Mining Company, and the Shannon Copper Mining Company, three large mining companies all located around the Clifton area, were proponents of these discussions, in favor of separating from Graham County. Eventually the opposition was won over by the arrangement that the newly established county would assume Graham County’s debt in the amount of $146,000. Greenlee County was officially established as a separate entity from Graham County on August 10, 1910.
Greenlee County is named for Mason Greenlee, an entrepreneurial miner who came to the area in search of gold and other precious minerals, before the town was settled. Originally, however, there were other names for the town in contention. First was Colquhoun. This potential name was for the manager of the successful Arizona Copper Company. James Colquhoun developed the process of leaching copper. This process made low-grade ores able to be used to create a decent profit. Another name in debate came from the town of Morenci. The leaders there felt that the new county should be called Douglas, after the superintendent of the Detroit Copper Company. In the long run, a compromise was agreed upon, to name the county Lincoln. Again, there were arguments over the name, but the groups eventually came to a final agreement to name the county Greenlee.
Mason Greenlee was born in Virginia but lived in Denver after the Civil War. While prospecting in Colorado, Greenlee joined a company heading to the area that is now Clifton He left behind his extremely successful mine, named “Wheel of Fortune.” The prospecting party stayed in the Clifton area through the winter of 1871, but made their return to Colorado shortly thereafter due to pressure from the local Apaches. However, Greenlee had not yet had his fill of Arizona mining and wanted to make his return to Clifton. Due to this desire, he sold this valuable mine (Wheel of Fortune) and made his way back to Clifton in 1878. Along with his partner, Lloyd Tevis, and a small crew of other miners the Greenlee Gold Mountain Mining District that is located a few miles north of Clifton was established. The new mining company never found the gold they sought here, but nevertheless, created a successful mining industry for other metals. Greenlee was known to be well liked with a passion for talking and joking to all those he met in his travels. In 1898, he began to have health problems from the hard life he led up until now. He spent his last few years in Clifton at the home of friend Ike Stevens. Mason Greenlee passed away in 1903. The public built a monument at his gravesite to honor the man who began to build the mining industry of the area, Mason Greenlee. As the county was being named a few years after Greenlee’s death, he was still well remembered. Neighboring counties include Apache County to the north, Catron County in New Mexico to the northeast, Grant County and Hidalgo County both in New Mexico to the southeast, and Cochise County and Graham County to the southwest.
The official seal of Greenlee County was not adopted until 1964, over fifty years after the county’s inception. The seal shows a Spanish explorer named Coronado in gold on a bright blue background. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado commanded the expedition to search for the Seven Cities of Cibola, a fictitious town of gold. After further exploration, without finding a land of gold, what is now Greenlee County was designated New Spain, claimed in the name of their King. This claim lasted until 1821, 281 years after the initial designation. Due to a revolt further south, Mexico became independent, freeing the land. The rest of the seal is simple, a band of silver around the outside edge, with black lettering across the top “The Great Seal of Greenlee County”, and “Arizona” across the bottom.
The climate of Greenlee County is average for the larger Arizona and New Mexico area, with summer highs around 96 degrees Fahrenheit and winter lows around 26 degrees Fahrenheit. It is a relatively dry county, with an average rainfall around approximately 14 inches annually. The county also gets a bit of snow in the winter, averaging at about 6 inches in each year. The Forest Service controls almost 64 percent of Greenlee County and the Bureau of Land Management controls about 14 percent. Private and corporate ownership combined are at around 8 percent of the land within the county. The northern part of Greenlee County rises to 8,000 feet above sea level in parts, while the southernmost region is more of a desert terrain area. The total land area in the county is 1,847 square miles, with only one square mile of water in the form of creeks and rivers. The population of the county is almost evenly split between older and younger adults and children, with far fewer college age people and seniors. Overall the split between males and females living in Greenlee County is also even, with more male children than female. These residents are mostly White or Hispanic in ethnicity, with less than six percent outside of those two categories. Half of the households in the county are married, more than half married with children under 18 years old in the same household. United States born citizens make up 95 percent of the population here, however this may be inaccurate due to trepidation to report non citizenship status.
Mining and raising stock are the primary industries for the area historically and into the present day. The Morenci mine is Arizona’s largest mining operation, and the largest copper mine in the United States. This is also one of the largest mines of its type in the world. The Morenci Mine is the largest producer of copper in North America. Generally, this mine produces over 800 million pounds of copper every year and has moved more than one million tons each day of operation. The principal owner of the Morenci Mine is Freeport-McMoRan, however the Sumitomo Group has owned 13 percent since 2016.
Mining isn’t the only thing keeping Greenlee County alive, the wilderness surrounding the towns also allows great opportunity for hiking, fishing, hunting, and camping. Fishing in the Black River will yield rainbow trout and Arizona rainbow trout, in Eagle Creek you will find catfish and trout, rainbow trout is also found in the Blue River, and catfish may be caught in both the Gila River and the San Francisco River. For the hunters, dove and quail hunting are popular in the Duncan Valley. You will find white tail deer, turkey, bear, and mules in the Apache-Stigreaves Forest. This forest also boasts exceptional camping and fishing opportunities as well as the opportunity to backpack into the Blue Range Primitive Area. Another popular hobby in the area is rock hunting. Semi-precious gems and minerals are also abundant in the area and are easily found. To the northeast of Clifton lies Limestone Canyon, holding one of the world’s largest deposits of agate, jasper, and rhyolite. Chalcedony and fire agate can be found south of Duncan. In the Morenci area, malachite, azurite, and chrysocolla are plentiful.
Beyond this beautiful and bountiful landscape, there are several landmarks to visit in the county as well. For instance, the Arizona and New Mexico Railway Passenger station is a remarkable relic from 1913, when trains were heavily relied upon for transportation of goods and people. The station, located in Clifton is unusually large for a town of that size. It was built looking to an optimistic future population growth that would more than double the number of current inhabitants. The population never did grow to these estimations, and inevitably the station fell out of use. The building was left vacant for a time but in 1989, the Southern Pacific Railway gave the station to the town of Clifton. The town renovated the two-story brick building and it used it as a town facility.
Another thing to visit in this area is the Copperhead Train. The train was a part of Arizona’s first narrow gauge railroad. The narrow gauge railroad was named because the track is smaller than the average track. These locomotives can maneuver in smaller spaces and is helpful in mining. This railway was built by the Lesinsky brothers to bring ore from the Longfellow Mine, located only five miles up the canyon, down to the Chase Creek smelter. When it was first introduced the train was pulled by mule up to the mine, and relied on gravity and a motorman running the brakes to come back down to Chase Creek. The Copper Head was delivered from the H.K. Porter Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and ran until 1922. Long time Clifton resident and retired Coronado Railroad Engineer Tom Sidebotham facilitated the locomotives display. Sidebotham recovered the Copper Head from a junk dealer and rebuilt and painted it to restore it to its original glory. The Copper Head has been on display in front of the Clifton Cliff Jail since 1937.
Additionally, there are three other baby gauge locomotives on display in the area: the No. 5 in Morenci Plaza, the No. 7 in Safford at the Museum of Discovery, and the No. 2 at the Mining and Minerals Museum in Phoenix. H.K. Porter Company in Pittsburgh manufactured the baby gauge trains, like the Copper Head. This type of train runs on a track only 20 inches wide, slimmer than the narrow gauge tracks by almost a foot and a half. This slender track allows for maneuvering from the mines. These particular locomotives were used until 1923 when the Matilda Shaft on Coronado Mountain shut down. They were left marooned on top of the steep Coronado incline, losing their bells and whistles, and any other removable items as souvenirs to overeager visitors. The locomotives sat there up high for 67 years until a drill road was built nearby. Once they completed their treacherous journey down the mountain, the trains were restored by using a 100 year old glass plate negative. These artifacts can still be visited at the aforementioned sites today.
The county consists of the towns of Blue, Morenci, Duncan, and Clifton. Blue is an unincorporated, close-knit society. This area was originally known as Whittum, but changed to Blue in 1898 for its proximity to the Blue River. It came to be that no one could find Whittum, but everyone was aware of the Blue River. This is a small community bands together in times of trouble and joy. “Down on the blue” is a phrase common to the area, as well as around Arizona, that speaks to the wild and unsettled nature of the area, honest and unpretentious. The US Forest Service controls some of the land in Blue, with the motto “Caring for the land and serving the people.” They attempt to strike a balance between protecting resources, allowing certain resources to be extracted, and permitting recreation. The Blue Range Primitive Area was established in 1933. This area is only for primitive use, meaning no motorized vehicles are allowed in the area, excluding on previously established roads. Another hallmark of the area is the organization “The Blue River Cowbelles.” The group was established in 1954, supporting the area and the beef industry. The Cowbelles also have an interest in keeping the history of the area alive and have published two books on the subject.
Morenci, Arizona is a mining town located down Route 191, south of Blue. The early draw of this area was that it provided rivers and creeks even though it is located within a dry and arid landscape. One of the most notable features about this town is U.S. Route 191 sweeping through the mountain north to join Clifton. The road was originally dedicated in 1926 as the Coronado Trail, and was rerouted once around mining activities. The highway is known for its spirals and kinks, boasting about 450 twists on the stretch of road. Morenci was, and still is ostensibly, a mining town. However, at its beginning the mines were owned by separate entrepreneurs, by 1921 one company owned all of the mines in this area. Under the ownership of this New York company, Phelps, Dodge, and Company the town flourished for a time, until the established mines were no longer fruitful. After this was discovered, much of the town was demolished to make way for mining via open pit extraction. The company flourished as well, becoming a worldwide superpower, known as Phelps Dodge Corporation. They remained in Morenci until 2007 when the company and all of its holdings were acquired by a Phoenix based company, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Incorporated. Part of its holdings is the town of Morenci. This new ownership has been good for the community thus far. The company is investing in the area and financially supporting improvements in Morenci for the good of all who live and work there. The Morenci Mine employs over 3,000 people in the area. In 2016, the direct and indirect economic impact of the mine on the area was $978.5 million. Community members and stakeholders are working together to revitalize the business districts of Clifton and Duncan by repairing old building facades. The company also assisted in funding the Chase Creek Business Resource Center in Clifton. This center will enable new entrepreneurs, existing small business owners, and those operating a farm or ranch of any scale to run their businesses successfully.
Along the Gila River down in a valley, you will find Duncan, Arizona. This town developed due to the need for way stations between the gold, silver, and copper mining north of Duncan and Silver City, New Mexico. Originally, settlement was on the west side of the river. However, when the Arizona Copper Company built a railroad between Clifton, Arizona and Lordsburg, New Mexico in the 1800s on the southwest side of the river, the main part of town shifted as well. This new town was named Duncan. This river valley area was helpful for farmers and raising livestock and the nearby mountains provided mining opportunities for those seeking gold, silver, copper, and/or fluorspar. Up until the turn of the twentieth century, this area fell victim to cattle rustlers and outlaws embodying the essence of the Wild West. Duncan is also the location for the annual Greenlee County Fair as well as other popular events like mud bog racing and classic car shows. The population has not been over 1000 residents at a time, and continues to be a slow moving, country town. The area attracts travelers for hiking, hunting, bird watching, horseback riding, and scenic drives. The nearby mountains offer unrivaled views and challenging hikes. The area of Duncan neighboring the Gila River is a well-known location to find Native American items. These artifacts include arrow heads, pottery, and cave paintings. These are mostly from the Anasazi and other prehistoric tribes, but also from Coronado’s expedition for gold. The famous United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor grew up near Duncan. Her family ran the Lazy B Ranch, located across the borders of Arizona and New Mexico.