This open pit mine in southeast Arizona is so large that it swallows up U.S. Route 191. Travelers driving south along the highway will be surprised to emerge from upland pine forests into a desolate, Martian-like landscape. This is the Morenci Mine, one of the largest copper mines in the world.
With an annual production of between 700 and 850 million pounds of copper, the Morenci Mine is the largest copper mine in Arizona. It was first explored in the 1860s by gold prospectors, but wilier miners smelt a better opportunity in the mountainous atmosphere. By 1881, the Phelps Dodge Company began operations that would rapidly expand and make Arizona famous as the Copper State.
For over 100 years, the copper mining industry weathered geological challenges and wild market fluctuations, but in the early 1980s, the Morenci mine was the center of a desperate human drama. As the worldwide recession deepened, Phelps Dodge invalidated collective bargaining with the mining unions and thus began the Great Arizona Copper Strike, lasting from 1983 to 1986. At one point, the Arizona governor called up 350 National Guard troops, 450 state troopers, and 160 SWAT sharpshooters to protect the gates to the mine. The political, economic, and social damage done to the surrounding communities continues to be felt today, and are recounted by Anna Ochoa O’Leary in a new book, Mexican Workers and the Making of Arizona.
Today, the mine employs more than 3,000 people and continues to define Arizona’s identity in addition to being loaded with history.
Know Before You Go
The easiest way to experience the mine is from an overlook off U.S. Route 191. Tours are available on Friday and Saturday at 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Reservations are required and can be made by calling 877-646-8687. Tours last 2.5 hours and depart from the Morenci Motel. Prices are $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, and $4 for children 17 and under, but children under 9 are not permitted.
U.S. 191 is also called the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway since it generally traces the path that Coronado followed on his quest for the Seven Cities of Cibola. The road is one of the twistiest in the country, boasting more than 460 sharp turns as it travels 123 miles from Springerville to Clifton.