Ajo, the birthplace of copper mining in Arizona has a rich history dating back hundreds of years. Today it is a popular tourist destination and retirement Mecca offering an inexpensive lifestyle. Indians, Spaniards and Americans have all extracted mineral wealth from Ajo's abundant ore deposits. Around 1800, there was a Spanish mine here nicknamed “Old Bat Hole.” It was later abandoned due to Indian raids. The first American in Ajo, Tom Childs, came in 1847 and found the deserted mine complete with a 60-foot Shaft, mesquite ladders, and rawhide buckets. High-grade native copper, so rich it was shipped to Wales for smelting, made Ajo the first copper mine in Arizona. Ajo did not boom, however, until after 1900 with the advent of new recovery methods for low-grade ore. Col. John Greenway formed New Cornelia Copper in 1906 and expanded on a grand scale. In 1931, Phelps Dodge, the nation's largest copper company, bought New Cornelia. For several decades, more than 1,000 men worked for Phelps Dodge at Ajo. Phelps Dodge ceased operations in 1986 and sold approximately 900 of their homes to new residents, mostly retirees. Phelps Dodge is making plans to reopen the mine, at which time they expect to employ 400 people. Ajo (pronounced ah-ho) comes from either the Spanish word for garlic (Ajo) or the Papago Indian word for paint (auauho). Papago’s often obtained red paint pigments from the area. The Ajo lily, an onion-like plant, grows nearby. Located in western Pima County, this ethnically diverse town is on state Highway 85, north of the junction with state Highway 86and south of Interstate 8. Ajo, at an elevation of 1,798 feet, is unincorporated.
Mountains and the Sonoran desert surround the region. Ajo has employment in the tourist, service, and commercial sectors. Since 1986, nearly 900 houses once owned by Phelps Dodge were sold to new residents, mostly retirees. Due to its location, Ajo serves as a gateway for visitors traveling to Mexico, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and the Tohono O'odham (Papago) Indian Reservation. Ajo is centered on a lovely plaza lined by tall palms and flanked by mission churches and Spanish-style buildings. Festivals are held in the plaza. Other attractions include an open pit mine lookout and a historical museum. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, 36 miles south of Ajo, is a magnificent reserve of virgin desert. Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, 860,000 acres, lies west of Ajo. It protects endangered desert bighorn sheep and a herd of pronghorn antelopes. A special permit to travel the Devil’s Highway can be obtained at their Ajo headquarters. Mexico is only 40 miles south of Ajo. Visitors cross at Sonoita, a town founded in the 17th century. Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), once a fishing village on the Gulf of California, is rapidly becoming a major resort area.