Clifton: Christmas past and present

Walt Mares File Photo/Gila Herald

Change is here from fear to cheer

By Walt Mares

Those who are familiar with “A Christmas Carol” will recall how tight-wad, malevolent Ebenezer Scrooge was made to witness Christmas past, present, and future. 

To some degree, we have witnessed some of what Scrooge experienced. We speak most of the past and the present – that which has occurred over nearly four decades.

It was Christmas 1983. A few months earlier a devastating flood struck Clifton and for the first time in anyone’s memory, it hammered South Clifton. At the same time, there was a bitter strike by local unions against Phelps Dodge, which at that time owned the Morenci open-pit copper mine.

Between the flood and the strike, fear, mistrust, and despair were almost palpable. The flood mud left a strong stench of destruction in every part of Clifton that had been hit. The stench stayed for at least two years. The odor in South Clifton was quite strong. in South Clifton, where on Christmas Eve a newcomer to town walked, dodging debris and avoiding deep mud as much as was possible.

It did not occur to him until the next day that he did not see so much as a single Christmas light or string of lights adorning homes in the Flats, as what became South Clifton was once known, or on the hillside along Turner Avenue. There were only street lights, and not all were lit. It was as if the town were dead or dying.

The only public Christmas events held in Clifton in 1983 and ‘84 were Santa, played by Ernie Robledo, sitting by the arches on Chase Creek and children sitting on his lap to tell him of their Christmas wishes. A fire in a 50-gallon drum warmed and illuminated with the site. Despite Santa’s best efforts to spread cheer among children and parents, there seemed to be an overlay of disquiet due to the circumstances wrought by the strike. It had only been since July 1 that the strike had begun.  Many strikers and their families had already begun to feel the uncertainty of the future. Phelps Dodge was not budging an inch and neither were the unions’ international leaders, none of whom were feeling the anxiety or uncertainty of what was to come.  

At Christmas in 1984, there were some decorative lights among South Clifton homes. Although a year had passed, the odor of flood mud continued to permeate the air and made it difficult to appreciate the holiday lights. 

By Christmas 1985, more homes were decorated with Christmas lights and by 1986 there were even more.

Slowly but surely the devastation wrought by the double whammy of the flood and strike were easing to some degree. Groups like the American Legion and the Elks Club, both of whose buildings were heavily damaged in the flood, played an important role in keeping at least some sort of semblance of the Christmas spirit alive in Clifton.   

They worked together to ensure Santa came to Clifton to hear little children’s Christmas wishes. Elks and Legionnaires handed out to kids large stockings filled with candy and other goodies. Times being what they were – and they were quite hard – for some children the stockings may have been the biggest presents they received. 

What became an annual event was held at the park on Eastside, now known as Al Fernandez Park. 

 Let us fast forward to the present. 

Since at least the early 1990s, lighted Christmas decorations, from images of Santa’s face to candy canes and bells, have adorned street light poles, thanks to the Town of Clifton, which provides the decorations, and to Morenci Water & Electric, which puts up the festive figures.

The town had for some years set up on a South Clifton hillside a lighted scene of Santa and his sleigh being towed by reindeer. Eventually, the scene went the way of many attractive things in town during the late 90s, due mostly to a dysfunctional Town Council.

Thanks to folks with community pride and a strong Christmas spirit, Turner Avenue residents John and Josie Provencio and Peter and Barbara Reyes, Santa and his reindeer once again adorn across the hillside and add a special element of cheer to Christmas in Clifton. 

The live pine tree at Al Fernandez Park is much bigger than it was 36 years ago and is decorated with more lights than ever before. The little narrow gauge locomotive along a hillside and across from the Clifton train station has for many years now been aglow with a variety of colored Christmas lights. 

The Clifton Train Depot, whose inside was filled with about eight feet of flood mud in 1983 is encircled by beautiful strings of blue lights. There are reindeer trimmed with lights on the station’s lawn. The Zorrilla Bridge, formerly known as the Riley St. Bridge is handsomely trimmed in lights. 

Walter Mares File Photo/Gila Herald: Each year sports a festival of lights parade now.

The FMI copper company guest house, formerly known as the P-D Mansion, is a beautiful sight, its grounds, with trees and hedges are all trimmed with soft blue lights. No such thing occurred in the days of and subsequent to the copper strike. The acquisition of the Morenci copper mine by Freeport McMoran has certainly had its silver lining for Clifton and the rest of Greenlee County, and not just during the Christmas season.

What better manifestation of a solid and meaningful example of local Christmas cheer is there than the annual Clifton Festival of lights that just keeps growing and becoming more popular each year. It has now been in existence for more than two decades. Historic Chase Creek, which appeared to be somewhat on its death throes, or at least enveloped in silence and much darkness, is now cloaked in bright colorful lights and full of fun, commerce and one heck of a bright parade.  

Indeed, Christmas is in full swing in Clifton as it is elsewhere in Greenlee County. The fear and despair of the early 1980s are long gone and, realistically, will always remain in the back of the minds of those who were most affected by the double whammy. However, let us focus on and live in the present and look forward to the future with our children, grandchildren and how Clifton and Greenlee are on the grow.

We look at today’s many beautifully decorated homes throughout town. Almost four decades later we may briefly reflect on those troubled times days and the absence of Christmas lights. Thank heaven, when all is said and done, it is now just “water over the bridge.”

Merry Christmas to one and all.

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