The Wickedest Town in the West
As you pull off I-17 toward Cottonwood and Jerome, the road is flat and empty but inexplicably includes 8-10 roundabouts that go nowhere. You can feel the slight increase in elevation but until you make the turn onto the Jerome highway there is really nothing to see. Just before you reach the height of your journey at over 5,000 feet above sea level, you begin a series of hairpin turns. The last two turns are on the tiny narrow streets of Jerome – not quite 2 cars wide in some places. A frequent site is one car backing up to allow an oncoming car to make it through.
As you drive into the famous ghost town signs greet you proclaiming Jerome, Arizona as the Wickedest Town. The justification for such a bold claim? Try abandoned mines, sliding jails, platoons of prostitutes, a crazy priest, miles of underground tunnels, human ash, stacks of dead bodies, and lots of ghosts for starters.
It’s hard to believe that 15,000 people lived on this tiny mountainside (Cleopatra Hill) during the boom of one of the richest and most famous copper mines. At that time Jerome was even bigger than Phoenix (located 110 miles to the South), but today only 400 adults remain and none of them are children. The latter is sort of eerie until you consider the ghosts, open mine pits, and that the entire town has been sliding down the mountain at a rate of 3/8” a month for quite some time. Not exactly a fantastic place to raise your youngins. The aforementioned sliding jail has moved more than 250’ since it was built and even crossed a road. Whole buildings have collapsed, and many others were condemned. Streets and sidewalks buckled and sank. A good headlamp is something you might consider carrying just in case of sudden sink holes, an unexpected open pit, or you just want to feel more like a real miner.
Jerome was built on the back of the biggest and most pure copper source in the world in its time, some as pure as 45% when the typical copper concentration is less than 1%. During the first year of operation in 1915, the Little Daisy mine produced $10 million of copper, silver, and gold. Today you can still pick up chunks of copper ore on the side of the road—you just need a smelter to make it worth anything.
With so much reward during its hay day, you better believe there was equal risk to match. The mostly transient miner population didn’t care much for niceties when it came to their digs which was good, because during the mining boom, Jerome burned completely down four times. Tent cities and poorly built wooden shacks were easy fodder for fire. After what seemed like an awful lot of lessons learned, the townspeople finally decided to create a concrete plant and stop building out of kindling.
Speaking of the townspeople. Approximately 75% of the population were men and rest were prostitutes. People came in by wagon and on trains every day for the huge paychecks. Gambling, drinking, and the aforementioned prostitutes were the entertainment.
Looming high over town, the Jerome Grand Hotel is well known for its ghostly residents. This must have something to do with the building's previous life as a hospital. It is said that a famous doctor in that hospital believed that injecting folks with mercury cured everything from the flu to a broken leg. Needless to say, many otherwise healthy people checked in, but never checked out. Hotel guests fill the visitor books with tales of unexplained sights, sounds and smells, especially coming from the third floor – site of the old operating room. Between the diseases and the danger of the work, thousands died. As the legend goes at one time there were 45,000 bodies stacked up because the crematorium could only handle processing 7 or 8 a day. In response to the backup, the fine people who owned the smelter at the concrete plant offered to help out. According to the lore, most of the concrete buildings you visit and the streets that you wander along in Jerome are made of concrete... and human ashes.
There are at least two famous residents still living in Jerome. Maynard James Keenan, of Tool and Perfect Circle fame, owns the Caduceus Winery. Tool’s latest album listening party was held at Keenan’s Pucifer Store (Keenan's 3rd, lesser known band) in Jerome. Sally Dryer owns an amazing kaleidoscope store and was once the voice of Lucy Van Pelt in the Peanuts cartoon series.
The priest in the Catholic church was infamous. Upon his death, townspeople descended on the property to steal whatever he might have left behind. People found thousands and thousands of dollars in tins full of silver certificates and coins. The paper money had been shredded by rats. They also found some things that have never been explained: the walls were filled with mason jars of urine and ladies’ right shoes. If you’ve got any insight on this one please do hit us up via our contact us page, we’d love to hear it.
Today most of the famous residents are still hanging around in ghost-form, haunting the various creepy sites. The old hospital and now hotel, the Catholic church, and even the movie theater have famous ghosts who frequently interact with visitors. My relatives are very sure that Italian-born Peter Percola spoke to them from his lonely grave high atop a hill, saying only “Buongiorno” in response to their greeting and “bullet” when asked how he died.
If ever find yourself in Arizona with an afternoon to kill, or you’re really brave and want to spend the night in the Grand Hotel, I highly recommend making the trek to the Wickedest Town in the west. The road to Jerome is narrow and steep but the potential for genuine adventure makes it well worth the effort.