Neto's Tucson: Mining's history interwoven with Arizona's

2012-02-12T00:00:00Z Neto's Tucson: Mining's history interwoven with Arizona'sErnesto Portillo Jr. Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 12, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Inside the entrance of the UA's Science-Engineering Library, sandwiched between Bear Down Gym and the Koffler Building on the Mall, is a display of a critical portion of Arizona history. There, three glass cases contain books, documents and photographs of our state's mining history.

While the exhibition, "Company Town: Arizona's Copper Mining Communities During 100 Years of Statehood," is small, its story is huge as we celebrate Arizona's centennial Tuesday.

Arizonans can't talk about our state's history without talking about our mining history. Mining dominated Arizona in the first half of statehood. Arizona was the state of the five C's: copper, cattle, citrus, cotton and climate.

The mining industry's sway over the state is not what it was. But it remains a potent economic and political force.

Arizona's first copper mine was in Ajo in 1854, the year the United States absorbed Southern Arizona. Pack mules took copper ore to the Colorado River where it was shipped to Wales for smelting, according to the exhibition curated by Robert Diaz, associate librarian in special collections at the University of Arizona. Diaz's father was a San Manuel miner.

While that mine eventually failed, others mushroomed across the state - in Jerome, Clifton-Morenci, Safford, Tucson, Bisbee, San Manuel, Globe-Miami, Ray-Sonora and other camps long forgotten.

Copper and money began to flow from Arizona like the Colorado River.

However, in talking about this history, there is the companion history of miners, their families and the unions, and their efforts to secure better working conditions and wages.

Anna Ochoa O'Leary remembers. She grew up in Clifton, the daughter and sister of miners.

When talking about the state's history, she said, there is another "C" word that is often forgotten. That word is "community," said O'Leary, a professor in the UA's department of Mexican American and Raza studies.

"We are part of that history too."

That history includes segregation, strikes and success, said O'Leary, who will give a presentation next month at the university.

Mining families were segregated. Mexicans, who made up the bulk of the workforce, lived apart from non-Mexicans. And the engineers and managers lived in enclaves.

Mining jobs, with union contracts, brought a better standard of living for mining families. Fathers who labored under or above ground could afford to help their children attend college.

But that upward mobility came at a steep price during periodic labor disputes with the mining companies.

In 1915 miners struck the Clifton-Morenci mines. In 1916, Pima County Sheriff A.W. Forbes issued a ban against picketing and marching strikers in Ajo. In 1917, miners were forcibly removed from the state during the infamous Bisbee deportation.

Throughout that time, mining families adapted to strikes and mine closures. It wasn't a matter of "if" but "when."

Conflict reached its apex with the Phelps-Dodge strike in 1983. It lasted three years, affecting families and communities in Ajo, Bisbee, Safford, Douglas, Clifton-Morenci and El Paso, Texas.

The bitter strike damaged the towns and divided families.

O'Leary's family did not escape. One brother struck while another brother crossed the picket lines.

Her husband, Jorge O'Leary, was a "company" physician. P-D fired him because he treated union families. He, with wide support, opened a free clinic in an empty feed store.

There was violence as striking miners tried to prevent strike breakers from entering the mines. It became a national story.

O'Leary was the president of the Morenci Miners Women's Auxiliary in Clifton, which is chronicled in 1997's "Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983," by author Barbara Kingsolver, a former Tucsonan.

Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, eventually suppressed the strike when he ordered in hundreds of National Guard troops and state police officers. They entered Clifton-Morenci with tanks and helicopters on Aug. 19, 1986.

"Everything was vibrating," O'Leary said of that morning. "We felt the ground shaking."

The history of mines and miners changed forever.

If you go

• What: Lecture by Anna Ochoa O'Leary, "Life, Family and the Arizona Mining Community: A Gendered Perspective"

• When: 3-4:30 p.m. March 6

• Where: University of Arizona Science-Engineering Library, Room 311

Ernesto Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at netopjr@azstarnet.com or 573-4187.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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