Editorial: Clifton bounces back from Christmas 1983

Walt Mares Photo/Gila Herald: The Clifton Train Depot provides a delight of lights as does the tall Christman tree on its lawn. The regular presence of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep grazing on the lawn makes the scene all the more wondrous. The depot was built in 1913 by the Arizona & New Mexico Railway. It was filled with about six feet of flood mud in early October 1893. The town cleaned it out, repaired it and the depot is now used for many community activities.

The many Christmas lights of today say it all

Column By Walt Mares

Walt Mares: Walt Mares has been in journalism since 1976 and has covered Greenlee County since 1983.

It is something I think about every year around this time. It is a deep memory of Christmas 1983.

There was not a single holiday light on any house in Clifton. There was little to celebrate. A large section of town had been hammered by a record flood. It hit on Oct. 1-2 of that year. Many people were left homeless. The putrid odor of flood mud was heavy in the air. It would be that way for at least the next six months. In some parts of town, it lasted even longer.

Clifton was hit with a double whammy. Unions at the Phelps Dodge copper mine went on strike on July 1. There was much tension in the air. There was fear. There was anger – make that hatred – for those who crossed picket lines.

Walt Mares Photo/Gila Herald: Over recent years, the beautifully decorated home of John and Josie Provencio in South Clifton has been a highlight of the Christmas season. This year’s display includes a touch of humor with a Santa’s helper sporting “Brain Freeze.”

I had arrived in Clifton, perhaps by chance, on Oct. 1, 1983, at the very time flood water from the San Francisco River began pouring into South Clifton. That had never happened before but this time huge trees became lodged beneath the Coronado Bridge on what was then Highway 666. The river ran an estimated 90,000 cubic feet per second. It ran only slightly less on the second day of the flood.

I did not have a vehicle at the time. Besides, it would not have done me much good. It was not until about a week after floodwaters receded that a person could walk safely and avoid pools of mud and muck.

I began walking around South Clifton sometimes at night. Christmas was fast approaching and as I walked at night something just did not seem right. Something seemed to be missing and I finally figured out what it was. It was the absence of any holiday lights. Other than streetlights, the homes on the South Clifton hillsides or in “the flats,” were dark giving the area an almost eerie, spooky feeling. 

Not only was there an absence of Christmas lights in South Clifton, so it was up on Shannon Hill. Neither was there much to speak of on Chase Creek where the local unions were headquartered. I do not remember seeing any colored lights at any of the union halls.

A year later, there were a few lights around town but not many. Two years after the flood, more lights appeared. Each following year there were more festive lights. By the 1990s, there were many to be seen.

Walt Mares Photo/Gila Herald: The little narrow gauge Copper Head locomotive, located near the Clifton Train Depot, has long caught the attention of folks passing through Clifton as well as that of many locals. It was made in the late 1880s and was used at a Clifton copper mine in the late 19th Century and into the early 20th Century. The locomotive is a real eye-catcher decorated with Christmas lights.

Today, in 2021, Clifton is bright with holiday lights. The train station is brightly trimmed with Christmas lights and there is a big Christmas tree on the lawn in front of it. The tree is fully decorated with a bright star atop it. Close by, the Copper Head narrow gauge locomotive, built in the late 1800s, is brightly shining with its decoration of Christmas lights.

The huge pine tree across the river at Al Fernandez Park is fully decked out for the season. There are lights suspended from the top of the Zorrilla Street Bridge. The Freeport McMoRan guest house near the park is also a wonderland of lights with blue ones outlining palm trees and other areas on the property.

I think back to when I first arrived here, 38 years ago, amid disaster and the ugliness and pain of the strike, and feel the love and strength of Christmas growing each year. More than ever before I wish people I encounter, be they familiar folks or strangers, a very Merry Christmas. It just seems like the right thing to do, especially if it is said from the heart.

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