Hayden Arizona: All American Mining Town

by Mark Hahn

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Hayden is a rundown little mining town in central Arizona. To get there, you turn north on a small winding road marked by a primitive welded steel sign off Arizona Highway 177. The turnoff is a few miles past Winkelman. Everything surrounding the town is connected to mining, starting with the stepped terraces of tailings across the highway. Mining railways transport ore for processing in the smelting facilities in Hayden.

Driving into town, you pass modest little homes perched on broken hillsides, many are abandoned and boarded up. After you pass the Community Center, you are in the middle of town. On one side sits the still functioning Hayden Fire station. This is surrounded by a number of boarded up stone and brick buildings. On the other side of the street, a small playground is equipped with a modern  play set. You might see a young girl in a clean white dress running to her sister on the slide. The playground rests in the shadow of a huge smokestack and the ASARCO smelting plant. A pool of toxic runoff stands behind the playground’s fence.

Years of ASARCO’S noncompliance with EPA regulations have left Hayden contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins. In 2007, the EPA acted and tried to get the town listed as a Superfund site. In a compromise action to avoid this designation, Asarco agreed to oversee its own private cleanup effort of the whole town. Understandably, ASARCO wanted to avoid government interference. Local home owners were also worried about the effect a Superfund designation would have on their home values.

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ASARCO demolished the most contaminated houses and removed toxic soil. In some less critical areas, they just covered the contaminated soil with a thin layer of gravel. The original playground — which was completely contaminated — went through a thorough remediation program including equipment replacement. The EPA still periodically monitors levels of toxins, but one has to wonder what long term health risks children growing up in Hayden carry. Cancer rates are known to be 50% higher here than for residents living in nearby Phoenix or Tucson.

Into the 1960’s, Hayden’s downtown was a bustling place. Stores, restaurants and a movie theater lined two blocks of North Hayden Avenue. Locals dressed up to go downtown and children were excited about all the things their mothers might bring back for them.

Men worked hard in the nearby mines or the town’s smelter.  They could provide a good life for their families here. Hayden was a small tightly knit community. Families stayed together generation after generation. Children could walk to the now abandoned school and families could walk to church together. Bars and restaurants provided social gathering sites. The Rex Theater provided feature movies for entertainment. It was a good place to live.

By 1980 it was all gone. All the businesses were shut down except for the last remaining restaurant. The owner told me she did a very good business serving locals and catering to overtime ASARCO workers. Then she had a fire. Fires gutted a number of downtown spaces and houses — presumably the insurance payout was pocketed and invested elsewhere. Nothing has been rebuilt in Hayden. The only downtown building that is currently occupied is the Hayden Police Headquarters. Very few of the other building are in a state that they could ever be inhabited again.

In the mid-1970’s, copper prices plummeted. An end to price controls, a post war reduction in military demand, a worldwide recession and expanding global production all contributed to this collapse. Up until then, America had been the largest producer and consumer of copper. All copper producers were hit hard during this collapse including the operation in Hayden. By 1980, Hayden’s population was reduced by half.

A walk down Hayden Ave. is disconcerting. Haydon feels like a ghost town, but one where the people have forgotten to leave. We tend to equate economic activity with community strength, and in Haydon, there simply isn’t any.

Unlike neighboring mining towns, such as Miami to the north, which was primarily white, Hayden was always mostly Mexican-American. Hayden started out as a segregated company town in 1905 and remained segregated into the 1950’s. Even the movie theater was segregated. A local chapter of the KKK was responsible for harassing Mexican-Americans by carrying out public activities which included local cross burnings. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that a Mexican-American could buy a house anywhere they chose in Hayden. The town is now more than 85% Mexican-American.

There is a strong police presence in Hayden. It feels as if a squad car passes by every ten minutes no matter where you are. This probably has more to do with protecting the mining interests than anything else. According to census data, crime is very low in Hayden.

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A long history of racially based unfair labor practices exists in all of Arizona’s mining towns. Into the 1960’s, Mexican-American mine workers were paid up to 25% less than their white co workers. They were also excluded from many promotions and oppertunities. It is easy to demonize the mining companies for these practices, but given that the AFL-CIO refused to represent any Mexican-American mine workers, it is no surprise. Competing against workers who have collective bargaining power behind them, when you have none, will always result in inequality.

In spite of the segregation, in 1959, the National Municipal League awarded Haydon the designation of “All American City.” This was at a time when the Hayden municipal pool was still “Anglo-Only.” The fact that they gave Hayden the award probably speaks more to the level of racism across America as a whole at that time than about Hayden itself.

Walking down the streets of Hayden, it is hard to imagine growing up as a child there today. The contrast between what you see on TV and what you see outside your window must be confusing — how can you reconcile the two and construct a cohesive reality? How does living in the shadow of an ancient smelter compare to the idealized American life that is seen in sitcoms and in the movies? How do places like Hayden fit into the modern world?

After the Hayden schools were closed, local children were bused to a school in Winkelman. This school sits on top of a hillside overlooking a giant slag heap. White smoke puffs out across the sky and molten slag pours onto the black mound periodically.

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The closest grocery store is the IGA in Kearney. This company build town was meant to accommodate workers who were displaced when the Ray Mine consumed the towns of Ray and Sonora. More on the Ray Mine can be found in my article Flowers for the Living and Rocks for the Dead in Souciant Magazine.

There is certainly a beauty to be found in Hayden’s history and stillness. When you enter some of the abandoned businesses, you can find what would seem to be a perfect dream house for artists or writers needing a retreat. The space next to the furniture store has beautiful light that comes through its whitewashed windows. A mural of a distant shore remains on one wall beneath the falling tin tiled ceiling — dreams of another place linger.

Casa Rivera was a large restaurant at the north end of Hayden Ave. Access to its interior is wide open. Walking through the ruins brings back images of former patrons and employees. We all build attachments to the physical spaces we occupy, even after we leave. Ghosts of the past seem to haunt every corner of Hayden.

Casa Rivera closed its Hayden doors in 2000. The owner has another restaurant of the same name in Oracle AZ. They make a really good breakfast burrito.

During the holiday season, the town puts up a few decorations. Children seeing these must know that it is almost Christmas. The holidays are about family time and gift giving. Parents in Hayden flock to Miami to buy toys for their kids from Walmart — just like parents do everywhere in America. The children of Hayden must be as happy as any others during the Christmas season.

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