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Spontaneous Trip to Morenci, Arizona

Sunday morning, while enjoying my morning coffee outside, I was struck with the inspiration to drive through Mule Creek and visit Morenci, Arizona. Not having been there yet, I thought it sounded like an excellent adventure.

While Brian showered, I whipped up breakfast and prepped our travel stuff for the car. We fed the dogs early, anticipating a late evening return. Then, we were off….

To make bulletproof coffees (coffee+butter+coconut oil) at the coffee drive-through. Finally, with a loaded car, a hand-drawn map to good rockhounding areas in Morenci (courtesy of a customer from the drive-through), and two fresh buttered coffees, we headed off.

Our longer road trip supplies – water for dogs and us, easy to use water bottle, laptop, snacks, Spanish book and novel.

Landscape of Mule Creek – this was actually taken while driving back.

Beautiful view as we headed down toward Morenci.

Photo moment at the overlook between Mule Creek and Morenci.

Trooper was also enjoying the view.

Morenci, Arizona

Morenci is a very strange town. We have never encountered anything like it. What’s so unusual about it? According to Wiki:

So it’s a mining town with a population of just under 1,500. But the mine employee 3,100 people. Hmmm…

As a comparison, Silver City is a “historic mining town” with a population of about 10,300. Nearby, we have Chino Mine (employs 1,035 people; located 15 miles east of town) and Tyrone Mine (employee numbers unavailable but said to be between 500-900; located 10 miles south of town). Both mines are owned by Freeport-McMorRan.

We stopped for an early lunch snack before our hike. This was one of the few restaurants open.

Next, we stopped at one of the mine’s pit overlooks. Jeeze, that’s a big tire! Imagine the size of the dump truck!

Back to Morenci: The mining company, Freeport-McMorRan, owns the town, all of the homes (old and new) and the local businesses. How did this happen, you might ask? Here is some of their interesting history:

According to this report, production at the mine began in 1873; it became an open-pit operation in 1942. The mine has been owned by different individuals and companies over time. Fun fact – “Copper ingots produced at Morenci’s early smelters were transported approximately 100 miles by wagon to Silver City, New Mexico. From there it was transported to eastern markets via distant railheads that were initially located at Kansas City, Missouri.”

Whoa, it’s big.

It sounds like 1901 was the start of residential construction in the area. “Around the same time, the Morenci Improvement Company was organized to improve living conditions there. By March 1901, this firm erected more than 50 three- to five-room residences that were rented for $12 to $20 per month. They also constructed a 42-room boarding house with a connecting barber shop and bath.

During this time, there were also many privately owned residences in the town of Morenci that were located on company-owned lands that required the payment of a monthly ground rent to the land owners.

So big.

By the early 1960s, it became apparent the town would have to be relocated as open pit operations slowly consumed Copper Mountain immediately northwest of the community. Residents began dismantling their homes in 1965 as mining activities drew closer to town. Phelps Dodge paid the homeowners for their home. Each miner who had to
demolish his home was offered a company-built home at the new town site situated on the flat-lying plateau southeast of the concentrator and smelter.

Over the next seventeen years, the entire community (including a hospital, motel, shopping center, library, theater, park, bowling alley and 1,200 residences for Phelps Dodge’s employees) was gradually relocated to the new Morenci town site. The old Morenci high school building was the last structure to survive at Old Morenci. It was replaced by the new Morenci high school in 1982.”

This was the first time I had ever heard of a town being dismantled and relocated. Pretty wild.

“With the exception of 2009 and 2010, Morenci mine has been America’s largest copper producer since 1984. Approximately 33.9% (1,061,200,000 pounds) of copper output from our nation’s mines during 2015 was derived from the Morenci operation.”

The above stats are all from this report. The direct employment numbers differ slightly from what I found on other sources. But one cool thing about this report is it goes on to list the domino effect of that employment.

“Direct employment at Morenci totaled 4,518, including 2,665 employees at Morenci and 1,855
employees working for vendors, who provided supplies or services to the Morenci project. An additional 6,697 indirect jobs were created by consumer spending by Morenci employees, suppler purchases and spending of state and local tax revenues.”

It’s pretty cool.

Mining of course, has its own basket of challenges and controversies. We have many customers at the drive-through who either work at one of the two local mines or who are married to someone who works at one. From what we hear, the mines must follow strict safety and environmental protocols. And it seems like the mines here do a good job complying with those regulations.

The Morenci mine consumes much of the landscape. In order to pass through the town and reach the forest where we wanted to hike, we had to drive under equipment that was in operation.

Idle equipment by the road.

The well known amusement park ride – the rock slide

Conveyor belt crossing the street.

Mine mine everywhere.

And then there were the big horn sheep that seemed unconcerned with our presence.

Especially the baby one.

We parked at a parking lot with a trail that we thought would take us to the biggest Arizona Cypress tree. After hiking in for 20 minutes, it became clear that we were in the wrong place. We hiked back, gave the dogs water, drove 200 feet up the road, parked on the opposite side of the highway and encountered the correct trail. After a steep hike down and an equally steep hike back, we saw the tree, loaded up and headed home. What a lovely trip!


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