Development of mining districts in Arizona occurred much later than many other states due to the harsh climate of the region, lack of water, and hostile Apache Indians. Despite these challenges prospector's were exploring the rich mineral deposits of the Clifton area as early as the late 1860s.
The 1960 publication Arizona Place Names by University of Arizona Press mentions the early discovery of the Clifton district and how the town got its name:
Lt. John G. Bourke related that when he was with the army c. 1869 on a scouting expedition, he was in a group which was among the first to note the rich copper deposits in the vicinity of what later became Clifton. The men took pieces of nearly pure copper ore back to Tucson. However, it was not until c. 1872 that a group of prospectors and miners from Silver City, New Mexico, explored the area and established copper mines. Among these was Charles M. Shannon, Charles Lezinsky, and Lezinsky's brother.
There is little reason to doubt that the location of the new community in the midst of towering cliffs led to its descriptive name, probably a shortening of "Cliff Town". The situation of the town was such that it was subject to dangerous floods which time and time again took lives and destroyed property. The greatest flood occurred on December 4, 1906, when it rained continuously for thirty hours. This gave the people forewarning of what might happen and most of them took refuge on higher ground. Nevertheless, eighteen people were killed by this flood. No serious flood has occurred since 1916.
Clifton is the location of one of the world's largest deposits of copper. Unfortunately the nearby town of Old Morenci has been completely swallowed by the open pit mine - another sad loss of our mining heritage. Clifton - while once a booming frontier mining town - is in serious decline.