Jerome, Arizona: Mining Town Turned Hippie EnclaveDecember 23, 2011 No Comments
Dad and I are from the flatlands. Having spent a lot of time in Central Florida, we are familiar with the Walt Disney World mountain range: Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain and the Disney version of Mount Everest in Expedition Everest. But actual mountains? Not so much. When we headed to the American Southwest in the summer of 2011, we knew we were in for culture shock. But even our wildest dreams could not have prepared us for Jerome, Arizona, a city literally built on the side of a mountain.
History of Jerome
Known as “America’s Most Vertical City,” Jerome, Arizona is built on a 30-degree incline. Located in the Verde Valley near Prescott and Sedona, Jerome was founded as a copper mining camp in 1876. Then a tent city almost exclusively populated by miners, Jerome fell victim to four fires but was continuously rebuilt.
By 1899, when the City of Jerome incorporated, it had grown into a flourishing town. Like all mining towns, Jerome had its fair share of prostitution, gambling and other vices. In 1903, Jerome was labeled the “wickedest town in the West” by the New York Sun. The city grew rapidly after the turn of the century, becoming the fourth largest city in the Arizona Territory. At its peak in the 1920s, Jerome was home to approximately 15,000 men, women and children.
The Great Depression slowed the copper boom, but it was renewed during World War II. The market declined rapidly after the war, and Jerome’s mine closed in 1953. Most people moved away, leaving less than 100 holdouts in what was rapidly becoming a ghost town. The remaining citizens heavily promoted Jerome’s historic value, and the city was declared a National Historic District in 1967. Meanwhile, a new wave of hippies and artists were beginning to settle in Western ghost towns where rent was cheap and government interference was minimal.
By the 1970s, Jerome was again flourishing. The first wave of new residents had a preservationist mindset that continues today. Virtually all of Jerome’s buildings date to the turn of the 20th century, and most have been carefully restored. However, not everything is as it used to be. Jerome’s dramatic incline took its toll on some of the original buildings including the Old Jail, which slid partway down the mountainside in the mid-20th century. It still stands where it landed. Today, Jerome is home to approximately 450 year-round residents, and tourism is booming.
The drive to Jerome from nearby Cottonwood, where we were base camping, was only nine miles. But we knew we were in for an adventure when our GPS informed us that it would take more than half an hour. As it turns out, the last five miles of the drive were straight up the mountainside, along a series of tight switchbacks! That was a lot of fun for us lowlanders, though the hour-long drive to Prescott, on the other side of Jerome, was even more breathtaking. That one actually offers pullouts and overlooks, allowing you to take all the photos you like.
Upon entering Jerome, we stopped first at a small pullout overlooking the main part of town. This quick stop is a true must-do to get your bearings. Highlights include informational signage, old mining equipment, and a fantastic view of the town.
Jerome State Historic Park and Audrey Headframe Park
Leaving the overlook, you have two options. The main road continues straight ahead to downtown Jerome, while the right fork goes to Jerome State Historic Park and the Audrey Headframe Park. We weren’t sure how long the state park would take, so we opted to go there first.
The museum is located inside the Douglas Mansion, built in 1916 by James S. Douglas, owner of Jerome’s Little Daisy Mine. The mansion was intended as not only a family home, but a lodging facility for visiting investors and mining officials. The home had such cutting-edge features as steam heat, marble showers, a wine cellar and even a central vacuum system.
Today, the museum houses a plethora of artifacts and exhibits that tell the concurrent stories of Jerome–the rough and ready mining town and the place where hundreds of families raised their children. As of 2011, the museum is open 8:30 to 5 Thursday through Monday, and is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. Holiday schedules may vary, so contact the park directly before planning a holiday visit. Admission is $5 for adults and $2 for kids aged 7 through 13. Those under age 7 are free.
Just outside the State Historic Park is Audrey Headframe Park. As of 2011, the park is open daily 8 to 5. There is no admission fee. The tallest wooden headframe still standing in the state, the Audrey Headframe was built in 1918. Visitors are invited to stand on a Plexiglas covering over a 1,950 foot mine shaft. The view is truly mind-boggling!
Our next stop was the Jerome Visitor Center, a tiny trailer at the base of town. Although the center is quite small, it is packed with informational brochures on attractions, restaurants, and special events. The staff is quite friendly and extremely helpful, so don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation.
Jerome exists on three main levels, crowned by the Jerome Grand Hotel at the top of the mountain. Although there is parking at the hotel and a few spots in front of individual businesses, the vast majority of tourist parking today is at the bottom of the mountain near the Visitor Center. Due to his health conditions, Dad was a bit dubious about the climb, but he did just fine.
As long as you are comfortable with stairs, Jerome is an eminently walkable small town. Clean, safe and friendly, Jerome is packed with interesting local shops. Artisans abound, from glass blowers and potters to painters and wineries. There are a couple of museums, and many buildings have historic plaques out front.
Down a steep gravel road from the main parking area is the Crib District, where Jerome’s Wild West prostitutes once plied their trade. Close by is the Old Jail, set at a seemingly impossible angle where it came to rest after sliding down the mountain. Keep a tight hold on your kids around the jail building. Although it is blocked off by railings, it would be easy to lose footing, especially for small children.
Jerome Grand Hotel
Every once in awhile, Dad gets an idea into his head, and no one can talk him out of it. In Jerome, the idea was hiking. Although the Jerome Grand Hotel has a perfectly good parking lot, Dad got it into his head that it was a nice day for a stroll. Located at the very top of the mountain, the hotel is quite a climb from the base-level parking where we left our car. But the walk was wonderfully scenic and despite the occasional moans caused by the osteoarthritis in his spine, Dad was quick to yell out periodically, “This is so worth it!”
Built in 1926, the last major construction project in Jerome, the hotel began life as the United Verde Hospital. Fireproof and able to withstand blasts from the nearby mine, the building was truly a marvel of modern engineering. The hospital closed in 1950, shortly before the closure of the mine. It sat undisturbed until 1994, when the Altherr family purchased it to use as a hotel. Other than cleaning and conversion, nothing has been done to the original building. The 1926 elevator was never upgraded, and is now one of the oldest self-service elevators in the country. The original steam heat system is still in place, providing heat to all rooms with the original motor and two vacuum pumps.
Dining in Jerome
From what we heard from locals and tourists alike, it would be nearly impossible to get a bad meal in Jerome. As an Arlo Guthrie fan, Dad was intrigued by the look of Alice’s Restaurant, which is apparently an excellent organic spot. But we ultimately decided on lunch at The Haunted Hamburger and dinner at Grapes.
Both spots are owned by the same family, who also own the wonderful Nick’s and Tavern Grille in nearby Cottonwood. Haunted Hamburger, housed inside a reputedly haunted historic building, is known throughout the Verde Valley for its eclectic collection of gourmet burgers. Of course, if you’re not a hamburger fan, the menu offers a wide range of choices, including vegetarian options. Unless your appetites are enormous, pay the $3 sharing charge rather than ordering separate meals.
Housed in Jerome’s original telegraph and Pony Express station, Grapes is a fantastic casual Italian spot with an extensive wine list. The atmosphere is family-friendly and portions are easily big enough to share ($3 sharing fee applies). Choose from an expansive list of options from sandwiches and salads to the Create Your Own Pasta.
Tips for Parents
Jerome is a true must-see for anyone visiting the Verde Valley region of Arizona. The friendly locals, interesting shops and exhibits, and historic feel make Jerome an excellent choice for families. Evening ghost tours, offered by Jerome Haunted Tours, are highly recommended. Dad and I thoroughly loved the walking tour hosted by Shotgun Sadie.
Jerome is approximately a mile high, at 5,200 feet. If you are not used to the elevation, take it slowly. Exertion, such as climbing the mountain streets of Jerome, could cause you or your kids to become winded sooner than you might expect. Drink plenty of water, as the desert air can be dehydrating.
Keep a close eye on your kids. Jerome is full of steep gravel roads, concrete steps and drop-offs. Although there is an excellent system of railings, it always best to err on the side of caution.
Plan to spend at least one full day in Jerome. It is the type of experience that unfolds slowly, and the best treats are not always readily apparent. Slow down, relax, and enjoy your exploration of this unique historic town.