Clifton Cliff Jail

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Clifton Cliff Jail
Clifton Cliff Jail Clifton Arizona Circa 1900.jpg
The Clifton Cliff Jail when it was still in use. Notice the barred windows in the rock wall and the railroad tracks in front of the building.
Alternative names Cliffside Jail
General information
Town or city Clifton, Arizona
Country United States
Opened 1881

The Clifton Cliff Jail is the original town jail in Clifton, Arizona. It was built in 1881 and first restored in 1929. The jail is now part of the Clifton Townsite Historic District, which was added to the National Historic Register in 1990.[1][2][3]


Clifton is a small mining town located in a canyon at the confluence of Chase Creek and the San Francisco River. Before the construction of the jail, Clifton's criminals were punished by being sentenced to work in the mines. However, many of the prisoners escaped before they completed their sentence. As a result, in 1881 two Arizona pioneers called the Lesinsky brothers decided to have an escape-proof jail constructed to hold the prisoners. To make it escape-proof, the Lesinskys simply had it built into the side of a solid granite cliff. When it was first built, it was higher up in elevation than the surrounding town and could only be approached by climbing up the side of the cliff. Over the years, sediment from floods gradually raised the ground level even with the entrance to the jail.[1][4]

The job of building the jail was given to Margarito Varela, who was a stonemason. Varela worked away at the face of the cliff with pick and drill and blasting powder. A small room was made to hold the more dangerous inmates, and a larger one – eight feet wide by twenty feet long – was built for the least violent. Both of the cells were fitted with massive iron bars that were two inches wide and three-fourths of an inch thick. The doors were of the same material, pivoting on two inch solid iron rods. The two windows of the jail were ten feet above the floor.[1]

Tradition says that when Varela finished the job he decided to celebrate. After Varela invested his profits in snakehead whiskey, he was so happy that the jail was finished he pulled his sidearm and proceeded to shoot up Hovey's Dance Hall to attract peoples' attention and to tell them the news. The proprietor of the hall, who was also the deputy sheriff, arrested him, and Varela became the first prisoner held in the jail.[1]

The old stone jail was the only one in Clifton for several years. Over time, it housed many criminals, including Augustine Chacon, who was captured in 1895 after a gunfight in nearby Morenci. The jail was closed eleven years later in 1906, when a large flood nearly submerged the building. The water was so deep that the prisoners had to be pulled out by ropes through a small window high up in the roof. After the flood the jail was filled with mud and debris, and so it was abandoned. The building went unused until 1929, when Mayor Peter Riley of Clifton started the process of having it restored. Now it serves as another interesting reminder of law enforcement on the American frontier.[1][5]

In 1962, the Arizona Development Board mounted a plaque in front of the jail, which says the following:

Blasted from living rock this jail confined many of the bad men who crowded into the district in the boom days. Local tradition says that the first inmate in 1881 was the miner who built the jail. It was contributed to the town by the Lesinsky Brothers who built the first copper smelter on Chase Creek.[6]

The "Copper Head"[edit]

Arizona's first steam-powered railroad was built by the Lesinsky brothers in 1879 to bring ore from the Longfellow Mine, five miles up the canyon, to the Chase Creek smelter. Initially, mules pulled ore cars up the hill and then rode down as passengers on top of the loaded cars, which were moved by gravity. Braking was controlled by a "motorman," and the ore was put into bins that are still visible today. From 1880 to 1899, ten baby-gauge locomotives were purchased from the H. K. Porter Company of Pittsburgh and delivered to the railend at La Junta, Colorado, where they were offloaded and sent to Arizona overland. They were called "baby-gauge" locomotives because the track was only twenty inches wide, whereas a regular narrow gauge is thirty-six inches wide and a standard gauge is about fifty-eight inches wide. From La Junta the first baby-gauge locomotive in Arizona, named "Emma," was transported to Clifton by Charles Stevens and his team of oxen.[1][7]

Only one of the original ten locomotives remain in Clifton. Built in 1897, the locomotive was given the number "8," according to the company records, and nicknamed "Copper Head." The Copper Head was used at the mines in Metcalf, five miles north of Clifton, until being retired in 1922. Years later, a longtime resident of Clifton and former railroad engineer named Tom Sidebotham recovered the Copper Head from a junk dealer who was hauling it to his scrap yard in Tucson. Sidebotham rebuilt it with parts from several engines and repainted it. Since 1937 it has been on display in the Clifton Plaza, right next to the Clifton Cliff Jail.[1][4][7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Greenlee County – Points of Interest". Retrieved 2014-01-31. 
  2. ^ "Clifton Townsite Historic District – NRHP Registration Form". 1990. Retrieved 2014-01-31. 
  3. ^ Arizona: A State Guide. North American Book Dist LLC. 1940. ISBN 0403021553. 
  4. ^ a b "Clifton, AZ – Cliffside Jail". Retrieved 2014-01-31. 
  5. ^ Wilson, R. Michael (2005). Legal Executions in the Western Territories, 1847–1911: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. McFarland. ISBN 0786456337. 
  6. ^ "Clifton Cliff Jail Marker". Retrieved 2014-01-31. [dead link]
  7. ^ a b "Greenlee County History". Retrieved 2014-01-31.