Clifton is situated in a deep canyon formed by the San Francisco River. The town is synonymous in Arizona vocabulary with its twin neighbor Morenci and the rich copper deposits responsible for the existence of both.
Local lore credits Bob Metcalf with the discovery of copper ore while scouting the area for the Army in 1870. Claims were filed in 1872, and by 1873, mines were operating and a smelter was under construction. By 1877, Clifton was taking on the trappings of a real town, and its future was assured.
Anglo exploration of the area, however, did not begin with Metcalf and the Army. In 1540, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado reported to the Spanish crown the discovery of a river that paralleled in description to the San Francisco. And compelling evidence is found in Coronado’s report that his men bathed in hot springs located five miles from the mouth of the river — almost the exact location of Clifton’s hot springs.
By the 1820s, mountain men began exploring the area. They trapped beavers and used their pelts for hats that would be sold to wealthy men in the east.
In January 1825, James Ohio Pattie, in the company of his father, ascended the San Francisco River and in two weeks, successfully trapped a couple hundred beavers on the San Francisco River. This is believed to be the first exploration of Arizona by American citizens.
Once Clifton grew in population, people began writing about the hot springs, although not all of it was positive. Reports indicated that drilling projects were abandoned when warm, salty water had been struck. One case occurred in 1909 when the Clifton Water Company was forced to move drilling operations three miles up stream. Its patrons, after all, had little interest in drinking warm water.
Attempts were made by Clifton residents to commercialize the springs, but nothing ever came of them. Perhaps the most successful Clifton resident was a barber who built a crude structure over a spot where warm spring water bubbled to the surface. Apparently, he made a good living offering baths at 25 cents a dip.
In 1917, a group of wealthy locals put together the Aztec Hot Springs Company, and commenced selling stock. An architect was hired to draw up elaborate plans for a hotel, baths and country club. However, stock sales were disappointing and the project fizzled.
At the conclusion of World War I, the price of copper dipped and with it, so did Clifton’s economy. During the early 1920s, the town’s movers and shakers determined that Clifton’s future rested not in copper but in mineral water. They believed the mineral hot springs could help the town renew itself as a health resort destination.
Thus, the Clifton Improvement Company was organized, a public relations man was hired to write press releases and stock was sold to raise capital for construction of a swimming pool and bathhouse — each utilizing the invigorating water of the hot springs.
The stock was sold and in 1927, the swimming pool was completed. The bathhouse — the interesting structure pictured here — was finished in 1928 and Clifton Mineral Hot Springs was open for business. But despite a costly newspaper advertising campaign touting the curative qualities of the water, no one came. The scheme was an utter failure.
In the end, Clifton was forced to endure the hardships enforced by a stressed economy and reassumed its role as a copper mining town.
—W. Lane Rogers. Photo courtesy author.