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After the Boom in Tombstone and Jerome, Arizona: Decline in Western Resource Towns

Author(s):Clements, Eric L.
Reviewer(s):Kaiser, Brooks A.

Published by EH.NET (June 2004)

Eric L. Clements, After the Boom in Tombstone and Jerome, Arizona: Decline in Western Resource Towns. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 2003. xv + 389 pp. $29.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-87417-571-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Brooks A. Kaiser, Department of Economics, Gettysburg College.

Boomtowns sprang up through the United States, particularly in the West, as fast as entrepreneurial spirits could dowse a whiff of extractable resource hiding below the earth’s surface. Many of these resource dependent towns disappeared as quickly as they arose, as, within a short time, the cost of extracting the resource outstripped the benefit it would bring at market. The towns disappeared as their homes were carted off to new communities, the schools closed, and the volunteer fire brigades could not muster the crews to fight the fires. In this book, Eric Clements seeks to investigate the story of these busts in their own right, rather than as a footnote to their earlier boom days. He chooses a case study approach, describing in detail the fates of Tombstone and Jerome, Arizona. Clements, a historian at Southeast Missouri State University, verbalizes several tantalizingly interesting avenues of economic research, and illustrates, with interesting detail, disequilibria of dynamic community transformation. Unfortunately, he does not draw on economic theory to generalize his findings from his limited cases.

Tombstone’s silver boom and bust took place rather quickly and dramatically, chiefly in the late nineteenth century, while Jerome’s copper boom and bust took place later, and evolved more slowly, with much of the tale occurring simultaneously with the Great Depression. Bust, it appears, was as impacted by increased market intervention as any other part of American history. In Tombstone and smaller towns that also went bust at the end of the nineteenth century, entrepreneurs quickly moved to new opportunities, and the population of young men quickly found new towns. In Jerome and other towns that went bust later, stronger investments in unions, infrastructure, and mineral price supports meant that the town lingered.

The two towns provide an interesting contrast with one another and a view into what might make a young, resource-dependent community grow or dwindle. The story of a true mining ghost town, however, is not necessarily captured, as it was too ephemeral to leave sufficient record to address the questions Clements asks. He seeks to understand the influences of bust on community structure and demographic change, including disparate impacts by race, gender, age, and ethnicity.

He provides a few interesting demographic statistics suggesting that labor mobility is mainly a privilege of young unattached males, as the community in bust consists of a more balanced gender ratio and a population more greatly weighted by children and elders than it did in boom times. Though he presents some data on race, ethnicity, marriage, divorce, suicide, and crime, he wisely refrains from attributing to bust much responsibility for impacting these socio-economic factors.

In analyzing industrial change, Clements realizes that the economic incentives in mining may not be favorable to community development. Here is one place where economic theory could be integrated into the discussion. With entire communities dependent on competitive prices for mineral resources, the bust town appears akin to the atomistic competitive firm, writ large. Rising extraction costs (particularly in Tombstone) dissipate earlier Ricardian rents, and the town is no longer competitive with other sources. The mine owners (and community leaders generally), face declining prices from oversupply and falling demand. Countering competition, they seek consolidation and price support interventions. Inventories rise, and further extraction is counterproductive. Labor also seeks to counter competition; unionization increases (as it did in Jerome). These anti-competitive actions work to slow bust, but they cannot prevent it.

One interesting thread worthy of further exploration is the role of the entrepreneur. He was the source of much of the initial capital and the impetus for development in such towns, and his flight, seeking higher returns elsewhere, visibly shows on the community landscape. Such flight, which seems to occur relatively early in the cycle of boom and bust, appears to have been rampant in Western mining towns

Further externalities and public goods complicate the picture of the town as a competitive firm. Public goods provision in these boom communities was often driven by private action, and the book is peppered with anecdotes of entrepreneurs, railroad pipedreams, fires and fire brigades, the creation and demise of schools, churches, infrastructure, and public goods of all sorts, though not named as such. With bust, contraction in these community-defining public goods is inevitable, and the stories presented here could be greatly enhanced by drawing together the anecdotes with the appropriate theory of public goods provision.

In fact, the book would be capable of much stronger arguments, in spite of its limited sample of two towns, by directly incorporating any or all of a wide variety of economic tools: public goods theory to account for community interactions, dynamic optimization theory to account for the role mineral extraction plays in the paths the towns take from short run disequilibria to long run outcomes, and the theory of the firm to integrate more thoroughly the effects of entrepreneurship, competition and collusion in community structure. That said, the book was not written for economic historians specifically, and the groundwork is there for any economist to see the forest for the trees.

Brooks A. Kaiser is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Gettysburg College and conducts research on past and present problems pertaining to natural resource use. She is currently working on several projects on Hawaiian ecosystems and resources, some of which are outlined at, as well as the fate of Pithole, PA, the first oil boom and bust town.

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII