Nestled in the historical town of Clifton, Arizona, a distinctive old jail is etched into the side of a cliff. The story goes that the builder of this jail became its inaugural inmate following a celebration, during which he was arrested for discharging his firearms into the air. This unusual, Old West prison was thought to be unescapable.
Clifton and its neighboring town Morenci, Arizona, faced an intriguing dilemma. Rather than serving prison sentences, convicted criminals were assigned to work in the copper mines that sustained the local economy. However, many opted to flee the area instead of toiling in the mines’ extensive underground tunnels. To remedy this, Clifton constructed an impenetrable subterranean prison within a granite cliff in 1881.
Local stonemason Margarito Varela was employed to build the jail. Utilizing a pickax and explosives, Varela hewed a tunnel that led to a large chamber, which he divided into two cells. Each cell featured a window for ventilation and natural light, but they were situated 10 feet above the ground and connected by narrow passages. Varela fortified the entrance with sturdy iron bars and doors.
As the legend goes, Varela celebrated his accomplishment at a dance hall, where he became intoxicated and fired his gun into the air. The hall’s proprietor, who also served as a deputy sheriff, arrested Varela, making him the first detainee in the prison he had constructed.
The prison remained in operation until 1906 when a massive flood inundated it with water, silt, and debris. Inmates were rescued by breaking the window bars and hoisting them out using ropes. The jail was subsequently deserted.
In 1929, Clifton initiated the restoration of the historical jail, and in 1962, the state of Arizona placed a commemorative plaque at the site. As part of Clifton’s historic downtown, the jail was included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
The jail is situated along U.S. Route 191 as it traverses Clifton. While the exterior is accessible to the public at all times, entry to the subterranean cells is irregular and uncertain. Reach out to the local history museum on historic Chase Creek, and they will happily unlock the doors for you to take photos.
Clifton’s rich heritage extends back to the late 1800s, with copper mining playing a pivotal role in its development. The town boasts a well-preserved historic downtown with many original structures, giving visitors a window into Old West living. Sites such as the Greenlee County Historical Museum and the Clifton Cliff Jail offer a deeper understanding of the region’s captivating past, making Clifton an essential destination for history enthusiasts and adventurers alike.
171 Coronado Blvd