Often described as a ghost town, it doesn’t quite fit the category, but, close enough, considering that it once boasted over 10,000 people and now supports just a little over 100 people year-round.
Though Oatman is only a shadow of its former self, it is well worth a visit to this lively “ghost town” that provides not only a number of historic buildings and photograph opportunities but the sights of burros walking the streets, as well as costumed gunfighters, and 1890s style ladies strolling. In its heyday, from the early 1900s to the 1940s, Oatman and the nearby town of Gold Road were the largest producers of gold in Arizona.
Prospector Johnny Moss first mined the area for Gold in the 1860s, staking claims to two mines, one named Moss, the other Oatman, after Olive Oatman who was kidnapped by Apache warriors, sold to Mojave Indians, and released after five years near the current townsite in 1855.
Gold mining would have its ups and downs in the Black Mountains until the early 1900s. An official town began to form around 1904, complete with a Post Office when the Vi-vian Mining Company began operations. The tent city called Vivian quickly grew as miners flocked to the area. Between 1904 and 1907 the mine yielded over $3,000,000 and a large gold find at the Tom Reed Mine in 1908 brought in $13,000,000. In 1909 the town changed its name in honor of Olive Oatman.
The Drulin Hotel, which was built in 1902, did a brisk business to the area miners. This old hotel renamed the Oatman Hotel in the 1960s, is the only historic two-story adobe building in Mohave County. Though guests no longer stay the night here, there is a museum on the top floor and a bar and restaurant on the bottom floor.
In 1915, two miners struck a $14 million gold find, providing yet another boom to the settlement. Soon, the town had its own newspaper, the Oatman Miner, as well as dozens of other businesses.
When Route 66 was first built in the 1920s, several supporters worked to have the road parallel the railroad through Yucca, where its supporters lived. However, Oatman was at its peak as a mining community and had more clout. So, even though it made the drive more difficult on those old Model-T’s, the road took the hazardous journey up Sitgreaves Pass and bypassed Yucca.
In 1921, a fire burned much of Oatman, but the town was rebuilt. Just three years later the main mining company, United Eastern Mines, shut down operations for good. But with the birth of Route 66 and other smaller mining operations, Oatman hanged on, catering to the many travelers along the new highway.
By 1930, it was estimated that 36 million dollars worth of gold had come from the mines. The town boasted two banks, seven hotels, 20 saloons, and 10 stores. There was over 10,000 people living in Oatman “area”.
During the Second World War, the government needed other metal types for the war effort, so the miners were taken to other areas and the Oatman mines were closed, leaving the gold to wait for better times.
Route 66 was changed to make an easier route south of the mountain passes in 1953. By this time, Oatman no longer held the clout that it had earlier when the Mother Road was first implemented. It didn’t take long for Oatman to be reduced practically to a ghost town.
In the 1970s, nearby Laughlin, Nevada started building up as a popular gambling mecca, and in the late 1980s, Route 66 again became a popular destination for tourists from all over the world. Oatman started becoming very lively again.
Then, in 1995 the Gold Road mine was reopened, taking out 40,000 ounces of gold annually. In 1998, the mine closed again because of low gold prices. it then provided gold mine tours for several years; however more recently, with the current price of gold, the tours have ceased as the mine has reopened once again.
Oatman today is a tourist town. The main street is lined with shops and restaurants. Wild burros, descendants of those brought by long-ago miners, wander the streets. Gunshots are heard as the Ghostrider Gunfighters perform daily, displaying blazing six-gun shootouts in the middle of Main Street.
The road to Oatman from Kingman is very narrow with several sharp hairpin curves. No vehicles over forty feet in length are allowed on this road. The road from Golden Shores is not nearly as steep or sharp. Once in Oatman, there is limited parking. RV’s or those traveling with trailers can often have difficulty finding a parking spot.
When traveling westbound Route 66, Oatman Highway continues another 20 miles to Golden Shores. The landscape along the way is dotted with mining remnants of more prosperous times.