Will mining return to Jerome? (Part One)

“Miner Pushing Ore Cart” by William D White. This painting was part of a series commissioned by Phelps Dodge Corporation in the mid-1930’s depicting copper miners. It is owned by the Jerome Historical Society and displayed in its Mine Museum on Main Street. Photo Courtesy Jerome Historical Society.

“Miner Pushing Ore Cart” by William D White. This painting was part of a series commissioned by Phelps Dodge Corporation in the mid-1930’s depicting copper miners. It is owned by the Jerome Historical Society and displayed in its Mine Museum on Main Street. Photo Courtesy Jerome Historical Society.

It's easy to speculate about the return of mining to Jerome. Everyone does. I still do. The wealth of mining and its ravages are in your face and under your feet.

When I roamed around Jerome and its mountains, I ran into big holes with fences around them and landslides of tailings. I loved throwing rocks down the holes to see how long they would take to hit bottom (seven seconds was the longest). My pockets filled with unusual rocks. I was in leaverite heaven.

The open pit just outside of town, icon of Jerome's fabled wealth, is still luridly colored with oxidized minerals, especially when it rains. In 1980, shortly after I moved to Jerome, then Mayor Richard Martin asked if I wanted to walk around the big pit at about the height of today's water towers. We walked up towards the water towers and up a little further to an old road that flanked the pit. Up close, the mineral's colors were psychedelic. About half way around the pit, when the road began to be sketchy and the drops scary, Richard took out a huge conch shell and blew on it. I have never forgotten the magical echoes that careened back and forth.

After 1953, The Big Hole Mine, a small company that leased rights from Phelps Dodge Corporation, mined the open pit for about twenty years. About twenty miners, some from Jerome, drilled and picked many truckloads of ore a week to be railed to a smelter in southern Arizona. Robert Sandoval, who was born in Jerome and worked for Big Hole, told me, "Lotta zinc still up there." He gave me three beautiful cobalt blue azurite nuggets he found. They're in a small white shell above my computer.

'Lotta pollution, too. When it rained hard, the ditches between the Gold King Mine and Bitter Creek ran azure with copper sulfate and other nasty minerals. Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold, Inc., which purchased Phelps Dodge Corporation in 2006, spent quite some multiple millions reconfiguring the drainages to get rid of the blue streams.

Walks to the mine tailings beneath the Jerome State Historic Park, once the home of Jimmy Douglas, owner of the second large mine in Jerome, yielded up azurite and malachite specimens, and once, a lovely piece of chrysocolla.

Two friends leased rights to mine there and recovered some fabulous specimens of blue rocks.

In 1985, a small gold mine opened under what is now the nearby Audrey Head Frame Park. There's a glass walkway where you can peer down a huge shaft that used to have an elevator. Outfitted with Wellington boots and a hardhat, I was taken down that elevator to view the new mine workings. The veins of highly colored minerals stuck out like sore thumbs. The gold mine only lasted a few years before it shut down.

These small mines reminded me that the return of mining here is always a reality. But it took me quite a few years to understand why.

Jerome's Fabled Ore Bodies

The leaverites that I collected over the years were pieces of an elaborate jig saw puzzle that tells the story of Jerome's wealth that began some 1.738 billion years ago and the incredible odyssey of its very rich ore bodies.

The ore deposits mined in the Jerome area are referred to as massive sulfides. As used by geologists, the term 'massive' doesn't refer to its size. Rather the term defines an ore body whose concentrations of all minerals exceed 50 per cent to the ton.

The reason the Jerome copper was so famous throughout the world was that concentrations as high as 45% of ore to a ton of rock were found in its mines, concentrations as remarkable as they are rare.

When I first moved to Jerome in 1980, my son Mike Sward picked up a huge boulder in Deception Creek. It was a little larger than a basketball and was streaked with copper. It was a great example of the high ratio of minerals to rock that made the Jerome mines so famous.

In the 1970s, geologists working in the Jerome area proposed a new theory about the formation of Jerome's ore bodies, among them Paul Lindberg, a distinguished geologist who resides in Sedona.

According to them, the massive sulfide ore bodies were volcanic in origin and were formed underneath the ocean 1.738 billion years ago, virtually at the same time as the formation of a large undersea volcano.

When the large undersea volcano erupted, its large crater collapsed and developed fissures through which cold flowed. As they widened and deepened, the water heated up from the hot magmas (lavas) underneath. Sulfur and minerals dissolved in the super-heated water and began to concentrate and be carried upwards through hot spring vents (called black, and sometimes white, smokers).

Massive sulfide ore deposits spewed out of the vents and were dumped out onto the ocean floor on a gigantic scale, beneath the pressure of 3000 feet of seawater.

Today, the phrase that accurately describes these types of ore bodies is volcanogenic massive sulfides (VMS).

The deeply varnished burnt copper sienna rock above the town of Jerome and surrounding canyons of Deception Gulch is called the Cleopatra formation and is widely believed to be the remnant of that giant volcano.

Jerome's massive ore bodies were entombed underneath. Paul Lindberg prizes his specimen of a remnant of a black smoker that he found at the open pit and put it on display at the Jerome State Historic Park.

Although all this might sound like science fiction or geologic mythology, similar events are now occurring in hydrothermal vents in deep undersea volcanoes near the Galapagos Islands and other volcanic islands.

Enormous quantities of copper-, zinc-, lead-, gold- and silver-sulfide minerals are spewing from these vents, causing some scientists to call them "industrial ore factories." Speculation exists that robots may someday mine these deposits. (Use the search phrase "robots undersea mining black smokers" and you will be amazed!)

What sounds even more like sci fi is how the ore deposits survived through so many eons of tumultuous geologic events. Another elaborate exhibit at the Jerome State Historic Park that was put together by geologist Paul Lindberg shows a possible series of sequences that he puzzled out.

Not disputed is that Cleopatra and her ore bodies were buried under the sediments that were the remains of ancient seas that solidified and became the familiar formations of the Colorado Plateau that surround Jerome and are part of the Grand Canyon.

A long period of erosion, catalyzed by 15 million year-old earthquakes and other geologic upheavals, eventually exposed the Cleopatra formation and a piece of the ore body. Once exposed to the air (oxidized), Jerome's minerals literally shined with exotic blues and reds that drew ancient Native Americans to mine them many centuries ago.

Are Jerome's ore bodies mines out? Is there a new massive sulfide ore deposit yet to be discovered?

One Canadian mining company thinks so. Tune in for the next "Annals of Jerome" column for some answers.

Diane Sward Rapaport is the author of Home Sweet Jerome: Death and Rebirth of Arizona's Richest Copper Mining City. The book is widely available in the Verde Valley and Jerome. www.homesweetjerome.net. The stories for "Annals of Jerome" are not part of the book.

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