There had been talk going on during the 1890s about the possibility of breaking Graham County into two distinct separate counties, but the talk had died out around the turn of the century. It again became a serious proposition in 1908 and 1909.
The eastern section of Graham County — comprising Clifton, Metcalf, York and Duncan — felt that the tax money derived in those areas should stay in those areas; the residents in those areas felt the existing situation was essentially taxation without representation. The three big mining companies, Arizona Copper Company, Detroit Copper Mining Company and Shannon Copper Mining Company situated in Clifton and Metcalf, spurred on these talks.
By the turn of the century, the citizens of Clifton renewed efforts for a new county. The combined population of Clifton and Morenci exceeded 10,000 souls compared to about half of that in Solomonville and the western communities. The Clifton and Morenci residents felt that the mining areas around Clifton were paying most of the taxes, while the political machine in Safford and Solomonville elected most of the county officers.
The proposed new county was at first to be named Colquhoun after the general manager of the Arizona Copper Company. He pioneered a plan for concentrating low-grade copper and developed the principles of leaching that led to the profitable use of low-grade ores.
The leaders in Morenci, instead, wanted to name it Douglas after Dr. James Douglas, superintendent of the Detroit Copper Company in Morenci. Because of the bickering over a name, a compromise was struck between the two groups where the new county would be named Lincoln. Again, bickering over the name went nowhere. At the time, someone suggested Greenlee after Mason Greenlee.
In 1871, a group was established in Pueblo, Colo., consisting of 21 men — including Mason Greenlee — to travel to the Clifton-Morenci area to look for precious metals. Neither town existed at that time. They stayed in the area most of the winter but returned to Colorado because of troublesome Indian raids.
Mason Greenlee was impressed with small gold deposits discovered in the area and returned to the Clifton area in 1878 to make his fortune. With several other miners, they established the Greenlee Gold Mining District, which was centered in the San Francisco River area above Clifton.
Although large gold deposits were never found, other ores such as copper were found in large amounts. A bill was passed in the state Legislature changing the proposed new county to Greenlee instead of Lincoln to delay passage of the bill. Graham County sent men to lobby against the new county. The bill failed to form the new county by one vote.
At that time, Mr. Mills, manager of the Detroit Copper Company, made a suggestion to delay the formation of the new county for two years. This agreement and the assumption of all of Graham County debts appeased the opposition from the Gila River communities, and the bill passed on March 10, 1909.
Clifton and Duncan both fought to become the new county seat, with Clifton arguing that it was closer to the geographical center of the new county. Duncan’s argument was that it was the outlet to the outside world and should become the new seat. Clifton won the battle and was chosen as the new county seat.
The new county of Greenlee became a reality Aug. 10, 1910, which was a few months shy of the two-year delay; however, nobody contested that date.
Construction of the new Greenlee County Courthouse began in 1910 and was completed in 1911.
After the split, Greenlee County consisted of 1,847 square miles, compared to 4,629 square miles in Graham County.