Travel Story "Wickedest town in the West" finds new life as America's largest ghost town

Photo of Gemma Nisbet

The former mining hub of Jerome in Arizona’s Black Hills is a "town too strong to die" — and a favourite with seekers of the paranormal.

In some ways, the story of Jerome is the story of countless towns in the American West, having begun life with a mining boom and very nearly ending with a whimper some decades later.

Set high on a precariously steep slope in central Arizona’s Black Hills — an area long occupied by the Yavapai people — the town started out as a mining camp in the second part of the 1800s and became home to the largest copper mine in Arizona. Jerome grew to a peak population of perhaps 15,000 people in the 1920s and, like many frontier towns of the time, garnered a colourful reputation. 

In 1903, The New York Sun declared it “the wickedest town in the West”, citing its abundance of saloons and brothels. 

If the story of Jerome’s rise is fairly typical for this part of the world, then so too is the broad outline of its decline. The town hung on through various challenges, including a succession of destructive fires, along with industrial unrest. But the Great Depression was the beginning of the end for its mining industry. 

A subsidence problem that worsened throughout the 1930s, damaging many buildings, exacerbated the woes.

World War II saw a surge in copper prices but the upswing didn’t last. The mine closed in the early 1950s and the population dipped to a low of as few as 50 people. That might have been it for Jerome — but it’s not for nothing that a plaque near the centre of its tangle of steep streets declares it “a town too strong to die”.

The scattered remains of ghost towns throughout the Old West are testament to the fact that, for a settlement such as Jerome, it was a case of reinvention or death after the mine closed. 

Famed Tombstone to the south survived by trading on its connection to infamous characters and stories of the Wild West to attract film crews and tourists. Nearby, Bisbee, the former “queen of copper camps”, found new life as an arty alternative haven following an influx of hippies and artists in the 1960s.

In Jerome, the local historical society set about buying up and preserving buildings and the town was declared a national historic monument in 1967. 

As in Bisbee, hippies, artists and counter-cultural types moved in and the tourism industry developed. 

These days, the population has recovered to about 450 and tourism seems to be flourishing.

We arrive over the high, winding road through the Black Hills from Prescott, a larger but similarly agreeable town. Tracing the long, wiggly series of switchbacks that make up the main street, we photograph the ruins liberally mixed in with the other buildings, including the town’s famous Sliding Jail, a concrete cell block that was one of the victims of the subsidence of the 1930s. 

Over the years, it has slid more than 60m down the hill, the original movement apparently triggered by underground blasting in the mine.

Jerome is often billed as America’s largest ghost town, and though it has quite the reputation with devotees of the paranormal, it feels lively and lived-in — and a bit offbeat — rather than abandoned. 

On the evening we’re in the town, the steep streets are buzzing with visitors stopping in at the shops and galleries, and heading into bars and restaurants. 

On one corner across a small park, a biker bar called Spirit Room is doing a roaring trade, motorbikes lined up out the front and a cover band blaring a Red Hot Chili Peppers song inside. It seems, then, that Jerome has become a contradiction in terms: a ghost town that appears to be thriving. 

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