JEROME, Ariz. —
Memories of family vacations from my childhood are the best. And even better when they are revisited. Back in the mid-50s my family and I drove to California. In Arizona, we made a slight detour from Route 66 to drive through the ghost town of Jerome. As I remember it, the drive was scary — the road zig-zaggy — and the deserted buildings, some of which had tumbled down the side of the mountain, were creepy. So when Jack and I drove from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon this spring — we had to make a detour.
Native Americans knew the area and, perhaps Spanish conquistadores, too. But it wasn’t until the late 1800s that Anglos came to the area, lured by the promise of mineral wealth. Yes, there was some gold and silver but the big payoff came in the form of copper.
Early attempts at extraction were less than financially successful but in 1888 Montana Sen. William A. Clark leased the mineral rights and subsequently purchased the major claim. Clark, already a millionaire from his copper interests in Butte, Mont., took over the United Verde Copper Company, which eventually produced more than a billion dollars in copper, gold and silver.
The other famous name in Jerome was James S. Douglas who owned the Little Daisy mine. He left a more lasting mark on today’s town because he built a beautiful adobe mansion that is now a museum and part of the Jerome State Historic Park.
Jerome in 1903 was described by a writer for the New York Sun as “the wickedest town in the West.” The miners were a hard-working, hard-living bunch and prostitutes, gamblers and bootleggers made out like bandits.
The first mines were traditional, dangerous, below-ground operations. Explosions and fires were common. One fire actually burned for 20 years.
At its peak between 1921 and 1923, 15,000 people lived in Jerome making it the fourth-largest town in the state at the time. Then with the combination of the mines petering out, copper prices falling and the Depression hitting, the party was over. The mines closed in 1930. People started leaving town; buildings fell into disrepair.
In the mid-30s, Phelps Dodge bought the mining rights and instituted open pit mining. The excavations scarred the land and the blasting weakened foundations already on a shaky footing from the 100 miles of tunnels undermining the town. All operations ceased in 1952.
This time the town was almost completely deserted and in shambles. Population in the next decade ranged from eight to 58. It was during this period that I first saw Jerome.
Fast-forward to today and you’ll find the town has made a mini-resurrection. It’s now a community of about 450 with artists, musicians and merchants making it an interesting place to visit and a stimulating, if difficult, place to live.
The streets still zig-zag up the side of Cleopatra Hill with steep stairways providing shortcuts for pedestrians. At 5,000 feet, even shortcuts leave visitors short of breath.
The first stop before exploring the actual town should be the Jerome State Historic Park outside of town. The museum in the historic Douglas mansion is devoted to the history of the town and the Douglas family. Built in 1916, the house was intended to serve not only as the family home but a hotel for company officials and special guests. The best view of the town is from the terrace in front of the home.
Visitors have several great choices for eating in Jerome. We had lunch at the Mile High Grill where we found great sandwiches and super beer-battered onion rings. We also stopped in at the Hilltop Deli in a structure built as apartments by one of the mining companies in 1916. Sandwich choices here seemed endless with a couple of great-sounding vegetarian options. We didn’t eat at Grapes or Haunted Hamburger, but we did eat at Nic’s in Cottonwood — owned by the same people — and we’d be willing to endorse them on that basis alone.
We stayed in Cottonwood but there are some nice places in Jerome, particularly if you don’t mind sharing your stay with some of the town’s more spectral residents. The really adventuresome travelers will want to take an evening haunted tour with Tours of Jerome.
If you enjoy shopping, gallery hopping or just browsing, there’s plenty to see in Jerome. Here are a couple of my favorite spots:
• Adorn is a specialty boutique with local art, jewelry, home decor and accessories. I bought some great Christmas presents here. I’d tell you what but that would spoil the surprise.
• Nelly Bly and Nelly Bly II are located in what was once Jennie’s Place, an 1898 brothel operated by Jennie Bauter, a madam from Belgium. When she was murdered in 1905, she was reputed to have been the wealthiest woman in Arizona. (I told you business was good!) Now it’s the home of two really cool shops. Nelly Bly II is a fine art and jewelry gallery. Nelly Bly is the world’s largest kaleidoscope store. Kaleidoscopes here range from bitty to really big — and the prices match. There’s even a kaleidoscope planter in front of the store with live flowers for the color elements.
• There are several wineries in town. Caduceus, owned by Maynard James Keenan, lead singer with the band Tool (ask your grandkids), and Bitter Creek, with the best view in town.
• Merchants Gathering in the 1905 Studebaker/Marmon dealership houses several interesting businesses including Cody DeLong’s art studio and Casa Latina, featuring Latin American art, jewelry and clothing.
Jerome is south of I-40 on a scenic route that goes from Flagstaff through Sedona and on to Prescott. It’s a detour well-worth taking.
ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond-based travel writer.