Nestled at an elevation of 2,710 feet in the Black Mountains of western Mohave County, Arizona, is the old gold mining camp of Oatman. While not technically a ghost town, several residents and independent businesses reside here, scratching out an existence – much as their predecessors did when digging the elusive metal over a hundred years ago.
Prospector Johnny Moss discovered gold in 1863, staked a few claims, and began a small scale mining operation. Soon the word was out of the mineral wealth in the region and the gold rush was on. Several additional mines opened during the succeeding decades, but the fickle nature of the precious minerals markets would ebb and flow and with it Oatman’s prosperity would experience periodic ups and downs.
Finally, in the early twentieth century additional large gold deposits were discovered. The Tom Reed mine and the United Eastern Mining Company, both well-established underground mining enterprises, ignited another boom in 1915. Oatman’s population swelled with the influx of miners, entrepreneurs and others seeking a piece of the pie.
At its peak, Oatman was one of the largest gold producers in the western United States, but like similar mining communities the economy and world events would eventually decide their fate. Before closing in 1924, The United Eastern Mines produced about $13,600,000 of gold, equivalent to $850,000,000 at today’s prices. In total, the district was responsible for processing over $40,000,000 in gold ($2,600,000,000) before the mines were finally closed by government decree in 1941. World War II was in full bloom and the war effort required other metal products and soldiers. As a result gold and gold miners were no longer needed.
Oatman struggled along after the war. However, mining never returned to its former glory compelling the remaining residents to either become creative in developing new business opportunities or seek work and employment elsewhere. A previously unrecognized benefit Oatman enjoyed was U.S. Route 66 passed through the area on its way to southern California. Unfortunately, this advantage was short lived. A new route was constructed in 1953, bypassing the town completely. The national interstate highway system was nearly completed in the early 1960s and many rural communities soon found themselves practically abandoned by mainstream automotive transportation.
Ironically, the same old Route 66 that previously played such an important role in Oatman’s survival and near demise would again help to resurrect the little town. Renewed interest in Route 66 – now Historic Route 66 – has been responsible for a revival of many communities along the highway, including Oatman. To capitalize on increasing tourist trade, Oatman has sought to maintain its Old West allure by keeping as many buildings, streets and other structures as original as possible, at least externally.
Another attraction is the presence of free-roaming burros/donkeys. They are direct descendants of old miner’s pack-animals which were released after they were no longer needed or the miner moved on. Today, they are protected by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Tourists are permitted to feed them hay-cubes or “burro chow,” but are advised to remain cautious when doing so. Normally gentle by nature, nevertheless they are still considered wild.
Other attractions in Oatman include wild west shootouts, July 4th celebrations, the Oatman Egg Fry, classic car and motorcycle rallies and other events designed to draw inquisitive tourists.
After nearly being forgotten, Oatman has found renewed vitality thanks, at least in part, to its close proximity to sporting venues along the Colorado River, the gaming establishments in nearby Laughlin and a large influx of winter visitors camping at numerous RV resorts in the area. These tourists enticements are a relatively short distance from Oatman and many venture the back roads to visit the old mining town.
To reach Oatman from Bullhead City, AZ, Needles, CA or Laughlin, NV, take State Route 95 to the intersection of Boundary Cone Road in Ft. Mohave. Drive Boundary Cone Road about 10 miles to old Hwy 66, now called the “Oatman Highway.” Oatman is about four miles and a hundred years down the road.