Monday, July 12, 2010

The Wickedest Town in the West

Cleopatra Hill sits at about 5,000 feet above sea level in north-central Arizona. It was here that in 1883 a New York investor, Eugene Murray Jerome, purchased mineral rights from a small group of prospectors and began to finance a mining operation. A short time later, in early 1889, the town of Jerome, encompassing less than one square mile on the side of the steep hill and with a population of eight, was incorporated. The town’s namesake, Mr. Jerome, would never set foot in it.

Jerome really came into its own around the turn of the 20th Century, when the New York Sun dubbed it the “wickedest town in the West.” Of course, this meant that the place was rife with that holy trinity of the Wild West: Gunfights, gambling and working girls. Nora “Butter” Brown opened the first bordello in Jerome but by the mid-1880’s was already retired and in San Diego. In 1905 she was shot by her husband, an opium addict. Her protégé, Jennie Bauters, didn’t fare much better, leaving Jerome in 1903 only to be shot two years later (the same year as her former boss, incidentally) by her hard-gambling boyfriend in Acme (now Goldroad), Arizona. The boyfriend, Clement C. Leigh, then turned the gun on himself and laid down to die beside Jennie. Only, he didn’t actually die until he was taken behind a stockade and hung for murder. The photo below is of one of the buildings in Jerome where prostitutes lived and worked.

The population of Jerome reached 15,000 by the 1920’s with the mines operating 24 hours a day. However, the Great Depression hit the town hard and, in 1930, the mines closed. The history of Jerome during these dark years is lost to the ages. However, in 1935, a man named Phelp Dodge bought up the mining rights around Jerome and began open pit mining, using up to 250,000 pounds of TNT to blow chunks out of the hill, rocking the entire city. One blast sent an entire block sliding downgrade. The vast majority of that block was dismantled, but the jail remains standing to this day. Sort of. Known as the “sliding jail” it now sits tucked away beneath a parking lot, hundreds of feet below its original location. The photo at the top of this post is from inside the jail. The shot below is from just outside.

By the mid-20th Century, nearly 1 billion dollars’ worth of gold, silver, and copper had been hauled out of Cleopatra Hill and the immediate vicinity. But, by then, Jerome had become a true ghost town. Below is a shot of the Connor Hotel, which burned down twice before this brick building was finally built in 1898. Once the classiest hotel in town, by 1931 the place was shuttered. It re-opened in the 1960’s as a flophouse. It shut down again in the 1980’s due to building code violations but has since re-opened as something somewhat above a flophouse.

Today, the population of Jerome hovers around 350, making it the least-populated city in the state of Arizona. Its most famous resident is probably Maynard James Keenan, the singer for Tool, who also co-owns the Caduceus Winery, which has a retail store in town. There’s also a boutique for Keenan’s other band, Puscifer, up a street or two. (Up truly meaning "above" in vertical Jerome.) Even if it’s no longer the “wickedest town in the West” (hello my former home of Oakland, CA!), Jerome still has some ghosts floating around.

The JEROME TIMES has the most extensive history of Jerome to be found on-line. Wanna stay at the Connor Hotel? Go HERE. Thirsty? Try HERE.

Next post is going to be a surprise to everyone, including me.