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The Backyard Traveler: Old West still alive in Oatman

Wild burros and tourists mingle on the streets of the historic mining town of Oatman, Ariz.
Courtesy of Ken Lund

With its frontier false fronts, wooden balconies and adobe buildings, Oatman, Ariz., looks the part of a classic, Old West town.

In fact, the town is so typical of the genre that several of its buildings have appeared in movies (including “How the West Was Won,” “Foxfire” and “Thunder Run”) and, at certain times of the day, wild burros can be found wandering its dusty streets.

Oatman is located about 30 miles southeast of Laughlin, Nev., via U.S. 95, then old Highway 66.



Oatman, located in the Black Mountain Range, was once one of Arizona’s most successful mining towns. Gold was first discovered in the area in 1863 by a mountain man named Johnny Moss and staked claims to two mines, the Moss and the Oatman.

The latter was named after Olive Oatman, a young Mormon woman from Illinois who had been captured by Yavapai Indians in 1850 while traveling to California. When Oatman was released (near the site of Oatman) five years later, her face had been tattooed with a distinctive pattern on her chin.



While mining continued during the next decades, it wasn’t until about 1906 that a community began to form in the area. Originally called Vivian after a local mining company, it was formally named Oatman in 1909.

The town’s biggest boom came in 1915 with several major gold discoveries. By the end of that year, speculators and hundreds of miners from throughout the west had flocked to Oatman, swelling the population to several thousand.

A school, newspaper, cafes, hotels, ice house, drug store and other shops were opened during the next year. Later that year, several large mills were constructed to process the ore body, which seemed to grow bigger each month.

During the latter part of the decade, Oatman became the nation’s largest gold producer. The town also benefited from being the center for business and trade for surrounding mining camps, including Goldroad. The region reportedly had more than 15,000 residents.

As with nearly every mining camp, a disastrous fire blew through the town in 1921, destroying most of the wooden structures. Additionally, the mines began to tap out, and, by 1925, many of the larger ones had closed.

Oatman quietly lapsed into a slumber that was worsened in the 1940s, when Congress declared gold mining no longer essential to the war effort, and in the 1950s, when Route 66 was rerouted 30 miles south, thereby removing most of the reason for the town’s existence.

Despite the fires and mining busts, Oatman has been able to retain its turn-of-the-century charm, with a couple of dozen picturesque western buildings. One of the oldest buildings still standing is the Oatman Hotel, built in 1902 (as the Drulin Hotel) and the only historic two-story adobe building in Mohave County.

At the south end of the town are the foundations and ruins of the Tom Reed mine and mill, the mine that started the Oatman boom. Tailings on the site still contain a quantity of cyanide, so visitors are urged to look from the road, but don’t trespass on the site.

Old Route 66, which passes through the center of the town, continues (it is a very windy road) north through some beautiful high desert country before reaching Kingman, Arizona, about 30 miles away.

Interesting trivia about Oatman includes the fact Clark Gable and Carol Lombard spent their honeymoon in the old mining town.

Visitors will also find two rather unique activities in Oatman. On weekends, locals recreate old west-style gunfights in the street — it’s hokey but fun. Secondly, from the quantities of droppings in the street, Oatman has a fairly large population of friendly wild burros, who stroll into the town in search of food, water and tourists.

For information, go to http://www.visitarizona.com/places/cities/oatman.

Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.