Before the community of Ajo was settled, the Tohono O’odham used water from a series of potholes in the area they called Mu’i Wawhia or Moivavi (many wells). Mexican miners later called the site Ajo, perhaps influenced by another O’odham name for the area –-au-auho—for the pigment they obtained from the ore-rich rocks.
On the way to silver mines near Magdalena, Sonora, Tom Childs, Sr. and his party chanced upon the Ajo area in 1847 and stopped to mine the ore they found. Soon the Arizona Mining & Trading Company, formed by Peter M. Brady, a friend of Childs, worked the rich surface ores, shipping loads around Cape Horn smelting in Swansea, Wales, in the mid 1850s. The mine closed when a ship sank off coast of Patagonia. Childs and other prospectors worked claims here; long supply lines and the lack of water discouraged large mining companies. Tom Childs, Jr. remained in the Ajo area and become merchant.
A wily promoter, A.J. Shotwell, enticed John Boddie of Missouri to help set up the St. Louis Copper Company in 1890s. Shotwell organized the rescue Copper Company when bankruptcy threatened. This became the Cornelia, then the New Cornelia, named after Boddie’s first wife.
“Professor” F.L McGahan and Shotwell introduced the so-called vacuum smelter that supposedly channeled each type of molten ore to different spigots and ran perpetually on the initial fuel. Mcgahan conveniently slipped away from the demonstration model in Los Angeles –it exploded when been tested.
The first to develop the Ajo area profitable was John Campbell Greenway, a Rough Rider and a star Yale athlete. He became general manager of the Calumet and the Arizona Mining Company. Dr. L.D. Ricketts and Greenway developed a leaching method to process the carbonate ore overburden. Greenway also located the well that still provides water to Ajo and directed the construction of the Plaza, the community’s focal point. Calumet and Phelps Dodge merged in 1931 and the mine became the new Cornelia Branch of Phelps Dodge, managed by Michael Curley. The local newspaper, the Ajo Copper News, published its first issue April 29, 1916. With over 90 years of history, it is one of a few businesses still in operation from the early days of the community, although it has changed locations several times. Its inception was at the urging of Greenway and Curley.
Ajo continued as the quintessential southwestern mining town, with occasional strikes and shutdowns, until 1983. The strike that began in July that year crippled the community with acrimony on both sides. Though the mine struggled on with non-union labor, copper prices plummeted and so did Ajo. Mining stopped in 1985. PD remained a presence in the community but sold much of its holdings, including the Plaza and the company housing. The remaining mines property is now owned by Freeport-McMoran Gold and Silver, Inc., which merged with Phelps Dodge in 2007.
Many retired people bought the houses and started a new era in Ajo‘s history and, more recently, changes have come about with the influx of Border Patrol Agents. The acquisition of the old Curley School and the plaza by the International Sonoran Desert Alliance has both preserved and altered the flavor of the community, which is home to many churches, fraternal groups, and social and cultural organizations with long and rich histories of their own.
© Ajo Copper News, used with permission.