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A Visitors Guide to Mining in the Cobre Valley

As you enter the Cobre Valley, a visual history surrounds you: the colorful vistas of open pit mines, rock piles, tailings dams, and smelter stacks. The underground riches of Superior, Miami, and Globe fed the earliest roots of these “mineral belt” communities. Copper has been mined here for over 100 years and still forms the backbone of the local economy.

It was silver that first brought fame to the area. After 1871, when the Apaches were mostly confined to reservations, prospectors were able to access the Cobre Valley area. Nuggets of silver were discovered, and in 1875 the first silver mines were established in both Superior and Globe.

By 1883, the Silver King Mine near present-day Superior was processing 50 tons of ore every day. Eventually the Silver King closed and new mines were opened, including the Silver Bell-Columbia, the Martinez, and, later, the Silver Queen. Silver mining continued to be important in Superior as late as the 1970s.

In Globe—named for a large silver orb found here—silver mining played out fairly early, and the discovery of copper set this mineral-rich region on a path to early greatness. Globe was a remote location in those days, surrounded by mountains and standing at the edge of wilderness. All equipment and supplies had to be shipped in 130 miles by wagon train, at great expense. Still, the ore was so rich that the mines could turn handsome profits, and riches poured out of the ground. Globe became the commercial center of the region. In 1890 John A. Black, Arizona Commissioner of Immigration, wrote, “In few places in the world is copper ore found in such manner and of so high a grade as in the vicinity of Globe.”

In 1888, when gold replaced silver as the U.S. monetary standard, the demand for silver dropped and copper became more valuable. In a single decade Globe’s annual copper output increased from 7 million pounds to 27 million pounds. Globe-Miami soon became the largest copper producer in the country, with more than 35 mines operating in the area. Mining company money helped fund the construction of a rail line from Bowie, the GVG&N, in the mid-1890s, facilitating transportation of equipment, ore, and passengers.

By 1909, Globe was booming! Globe’s Old Dominion Mine, founded in 1881, was the most successful and longest-lasting mining company in the area. The mine operated until 1931 and provided the driving force for the growth of the Globe-Miami area during its 50 years of production. The Old Dominion site is now a walking park featuring graded paths and informational exhibits.

In the first decade of the 20th century new mines were opening to the west of Globe. The miners, who lived in the Globe area, had to travel seven miles each way to work in the new mines—usually on foot, as they could not afford horses. An enterprising man named Cleve Van Dyke proposed building a new town closer to the mines. On October 11, 1909, a “land rush” was held, and Miami was born. Within three months the town had a population of 2,000, and at its peak more than 10,000 people lived here.

In the early 20th century Superior was another boom town, offering all the amenities the miners and their families could desire, thanks to both silver and copper production. The Magma was the most celebrated of Superior’s mines, created in 1910 when William Boyce Thompson purchased, renamed, and deepened the existing Silver Queen mine. Soon the Magma mine had 8 miles of underground workings and employed more than 600 men under a triple shift. The Magma Copper Company built a copper smelter here in 1914, and the town’s future seemed secure.

Today, a century later, copper production remains the bedrock of the region’s economy. Major copper producers in Globe-Miami include Capstone Mining’s Pinto Valley Mine and KGHM International’s Carlota mine, both open pit mines. In addition to copper, the Pinto Valley Mine produces a small amount of silver and molybdenum as by-products. In Miami, Freeport McMoRan operates one of three copper smelters in the United States and a rod plant that was the first of its kind. Freeport McMoRan’s mine in Miami is currently closed as a result of a six-year low in the price of copper (currently just over $2/pound).

Superior’s Magma mine closed in 1996, and the town experienced a long economic slowdown in the following years. Without the affection of its devoted residents, who refused to leave in spite of economic challenges, Superior might have become another ghost town. Today, however, Superior is burgeoning with growth and looking forward to new prosperity with the construction of the Resolution Copper project near the site of the old Magma mine. Once production begins, in mid-2020, the mine is projected to become the largest copper producer in North America, supplying more than one quarter of the United States’ current demand for copper.

(Courtesy of GlobeMiamiTimes/The Motherlode: A Visitors Guide to the Copper Corridor. Published January 2014)