Tucson, Ariz. – The names stand out on early maps of the Arizona Territory: Hamlets like Ruby and Silver Bell. Mines named The World’s Fair, Old Dominion and The Heavy Weight.

The town of Helvetia in the Santa Rita Mountains of southern Arizona, 1909. The Heavy Weight, Copper World, Leader and four other mines operated in the area. (Image: Arizona History Museum)

The town of Helvetia was located in the Santa Rita Mountains of southern Arizona in 1909. The town was populated by workers at area mines, including The Heavy Weight, and The Copper World. (Photograph courtesy of the Arizona History Museum)

But they’re not to be found on modern maps of Arizona.

When the copper booms of the early 1900s went bust and most mines closed, the towns withered to nothing, often in a matter of weeks.

Eventually they disappeared from the landscape and the maps altogether, save for a few decaying foundations, perched at crazy angles and giving in to time.

The ‘boom towns’ get all the attention.

Bisbee and Globe were able to adapt to a series of surges and collapses in the worldwide copper market, forging communities and regional economic bases that thrive today.

Helvetia and Gleeson weren’t so lucky.


Listen to an interview with historian William Ascarza on Arizona’s mining towns:


According to Tucson historian William Ascarza, it was “survival of the fittest.”

His book Southeastern Arizona Mining Towns documents, through photographs, the complex lineage of the communities that survived, and those that didn’t.

Ascarza says Bisbee and Globe are still around today because of their proximity to large corporate-owned mines, which are better suited to ride out the volatility of metals markets.

Helvetia and Ruby, meanwhile, were populated by mostly small-time prospectors, ill-suited to survive the busts. The moment copper stopped selling, or a mine stopped producing, it was time to move on. The communities they founded quickly became ghost towns.

Some places, such as Superior, Ariz., are in limbo between boom and bust. The small town east of Phoenix survived successive downturns in the copper market, but is by no means ‘booming.’

The main highway, a key route for overheated desert dwellers to escape to higher elevations, is mostly populated with gas stations and parts stores.

Empty buildings line Superior’s downtown. A few years ago, a handwritten sign could be seen in a window of an abandoned tavern with the words “Our future is in your hands.”

Superior, a copper town caught between thriving and withering, is now pinning its future on a controversial mining project.

Many town residents and Arizona Republican leaders support a proposed underground mine at Oak Flat, a few miles east of town. But the site is considered sacred by the San Carlos Apache Tribe, which has been successful so far in holding off attempts to develop the area.

A sign in a deserted building in downtown Superior, Ariz. reads "Our future is in your hands." A mining company has proposed building a new underground copper mine about ten miles east of town. Superior has been in an economic decline since other area copper mines closed. (Photo by Mark Duggan)

A sign in a deserted building in downtown Superior, Ariz. Superior has been in an economic decline since area copper mines closed. (Photo by Mark Duggan)

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