Home to the largest copper mine in the U.S., Morenci progresses from mining town to thriving community
The small town of Morenci is quietly tucked under the tree line of the White Mountains in Greenlee County in southeastern Arizona. Situated roughly 115 miles northeast of Tucson, the topography is typical for the region: the arid chaparral mostly grows desert scrub and, higher up, travelers can find semi-desert grassland vegetation on the rolling hills leading toward the mountains.
It’s a tranquil, unassuming part of the state. But amid the quietude, there is Morenci, which although small in comparison with many other Arizona towns, can claim a sizeable share of the state’s history and importance.
Incorporated as a community in 1872, the settlement of Morenci was founded and established by the Detroit Copper Mining Company, a successful 19th century mining and ore-processing company. Morenci was originally called “Joy’s Camp” after Miles Joy, who was then the mining company’s general manager. Earlier, in the 1860s, prospectors had discovered extensive lodes of copper ore around what is now Morenci and its sister community Clifton, and it wasn’t long before the entire region was booming with mining operations.
A True ‘Company Town’
During the Industrial Revolution—roughly from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s and beyond—the phenomenon of “company towns” entered the national lexicon. Hundreds, if not thousands, of them sprang up like so many wildflowers spread across the American landscape.
Whether they existed as rough-hewn “tent cities” around the Appalachian coalfields or as genteel residential enclaves built up by local manufacturers, they all had one thing in common: a particular company actively founded, planned and ran these settlements and, to a great extent, their inhabitants were employed by the companies.
A few of the more prominent company towns in America include Lowell, Massachusetts; Hershey, Pennsylvania; Corning, New York; and Kohler, Wisconsin (home of the famous Kohler plumbing products). But in the southwest, there perhaps is no more noteworthy company town than Morenci.
What literally put Morenci on the map is the Morenci Mine, where, in no uncertain terms, copper is king. Presently owned and operated by Freeport-McMoRan, an international and highly diverse mining conglomerate, the mine has been in continuous production since 1873.
Over the decades, and through all the mercurial boom and bust attendant upon the mining industry, the Morenci Mine (and its counterparts in nearby communities) has been bought and sold and bought again—most auspiciously, perhaps, by Phelps Dodge, which owned and operated it for many decades before merging with Freeport-McMoRan in 2014. To get a sense of how big the local copper mining operation is in Morenci, as of two years ago, the project encompassed landholdings covering approximately 68,250 acres. With the exception of a couple of years, Morenci Mine has been America’s largest copper producer.
As to the economic importance of the Freeport-McMoRan Mining company to Arizona as a whole, it can’t be overstated. A report compiled in 2018 calculates the economic impact of the mine on the state as reaching $1.3 billion.
It’s nearly impossible to separate the life of Morenci the community from that of the mining company that owns it. Stacey Koon, general manager of administration for Freeport-McMoRan is based in Morenci, where she also lives. She makes it clear that Morenci and the mine are inseparable from one another. All the homes and buildings in Morenci—new and old, residential and commercial—are owned by Freeport-McMoRan. And all of Morenci’s commerce rises and falls on the strength of the mine.
While the community’s latest census claims roughly 1,500 residents, the mining company locally employs around 3,700 people. Most, if not all, Morencians are connected to the mine, either directly as employees, or indirectly as families of mine employees or as business owners and their employees, who rely on the mine for their livelihoods.
Koon describes the character of the town as strong and principled, and she likens its lifestyle to the type that people all across the country strive to achieve in their own communities.
“When you talk about quality of life and the business community here in Morenci, it’s all about partnership,” she says. “Everyone works toward the same goal; it’s a very close-knit community.”
Koon goes on to describe a multitude of local community programs, scholarships, and apprenticeships that are all supported by the mine. But, she adds, that support extends well beyond Morenci’s borders.
“Morenci is the town where our operations are based, but the mine’s support is much broader than just in this town,” Koon notes. “We look to support Greenlee County as a whole because we really are the major industry in the county. We actually focus on community investments in all the county’s communities.”
That support takes many forms, not least the offer of a grant program that’s available to any resident. “For example, the grants can be used for community events during the holidays, light parades, river cleanups,” Koon explains. “We do have scholarship programs at the corporate level, but we also have an apprenticeship program locally in which we partner with the local schools, and many of the educational efforts and programs are funded through the United Way [which the company also supports].”
It’s very clear that Freeport-McMoRan’s caring investment in the local communities runs deep. “Some of the grant requests we have funded have gone to engineering studies for water treatment plants for the nearby town of Clifton, and water infrastructure for the town of Duncan…these projects are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, so they are pretty significant, in terms of local investment and support,” Koon says.
Pulse of the Town
That particular strain of cooperation and partnership is evidenced throughout Morenci’s small downtown, where a handful of businesses—around 100 to be exact—including a few restaurants, hotels and motels, a grocery and a hardware store, a bank and a boutique, and a couple of gas stations. Downtown is flanked by a business plaza, which encompasses a theater and a library. Add to those the usual array of service organizations—hospital, churches, schools, administrative buildings, a community center and several recreational parks—and Morenci takes shape as a somewhat classic, small American town, with all the expected trimmings.
Locals tend to congregate at one of Morenci’s more popular eateries, aptly named The Miner’s Diner & Bar. The restaurant offers a homey, casual atmosphere, where mine employees and their friends and families can meet for a Mexican-American-style breakfast, lunch or dinner.
“We’re the only place open seven days a week, all day long,” notes Jessica Dugger, one of the diner’s two owners. Just 18 months ago, she and her business partner Tracy Cauthen purchased what had been the Copper Canyon Restaurant—where they both worked—and they’ve been operating it since. They both saw the town of Morenci as becoming more prosperous and knew they could both add to and take advantage of that growth. They currently operate the business with more than 30 employees. “It’s very homey,” Dugger says of their restaurant. “People like to come here with their families.”
Their restaurant has become the de facto social center of the town. “We’re the only place in Morenci to offer dances on Friday night,” Cauthen notes proudly. “They attract a big crowd.”
From all current reports, it becomes very clear that Morenci was, is and will continue to be the classic “company town” as which it was founded nearly 150 years ago. There is no denying the importance of copper and of mining to Morenci and, for the most part, its residents are fine with that identity—in fact, they’re proud of it. It happens to be the reason they live and work there; it’s their lives.
Alma Lizarraga Hanson, regional sales manager for National Bank of Arizona’s Southeast Region, oversees sales for the sole bank operating in Morenci. She puts it all in perspective when she says succinctly, “Morenci is a thriving community, driven by the mine and the price of copper.”
So be it.
Story: Bruce Farr
Photos: Mark Lipczynski