Gold, Burros, and Whispers of the Past

OATMAN, Arizona



Gary Speck





In June 2012, the Speck family’s annual Ghost Town USA expedition began ubiquitously with a two-hour delay in the heart of California’s Mojave Desert.  East-bound traffic slowed then stopped at a point midway between Kelbaker and Essex roads, west of Fenner and several miles from the next exit.  About a mile to the east, a column of black smoke rose slowly over what appeared to be the highway.  As cars vomited stranded motorists onto the blacktop in the 100 degree heat, we all knew it was going to be a long wait.  Of course I’m sure that all of us were thankful it wasn’t us causing that column of smoke!  About two hours later traffic began moving, and less than a mile east of where we enjoyed our late morning rest stop, the Ghost Town Express passed the burned-out hulk of a tractor-trailer. As it didn’t collide with anyone or anything, the driver was unhurt. Embarrassed and upset, maybe.  But, unhurt.


After lunch and a gas-up in Needles with a penny-under $5.00 gas (OUCH!), we crossed the Colorado River into Arizona then exited I-40 at Topock, taking aim at the first of our numerous stops on a two-week, 14 state, 5000+ mile odyssey.  After passing the straggling remains of Old Trails, we rolled into the south end of OATMAN, parked our van in front of a ruin-filled lot next to the Glory Hole museum and antiques store.  Then we joined other curious tourists and the scads of burros strolling the streets and sidewalks of this historic old gold mining town.


Oatman’s story begins around 1902 with the discovery of gold ore by Ben Paddock.  A year later he sold to Col. Thomas Ewing and Judge E.M. Ross.  They in turn sold to the Los Angeles based Vivian Mining Company in 1904, which began development.  A post office was established in the tiny mining camp of Vivian, and by 1907, the town had expanded to include a couple banks, chamber of commerce, hotel, and a dozen stores.  In 1909 the name was changed to Oatman and some sources say it was to honor Olive Oatman a young girl kidnapped by Mojave Indians back in the 1850s, while other sources claim it was named after John Oatman a local miner.  In any case, it became OATMAN.


In 1908, the Bluebird Mine - also known as the Tom Reed Mine - began its $13 million, 24 year run.  A sister mine, the United Eastern produced $15 million during the slightly shorter timeframe of 1913 through 1926.  During this period, Oatman was the largest town in the county, with a population some claim reached 10,000.  Oatman was also a major stopping point on Route 66, and its long main street lined with wooden false fronts was (and still is) a major tourism draw.  Oatman was a rising star for the first 40 years of the 20th century, and it wasn’t until the government ordered mine closing in 1942 that the historic old mining town faded.  That is borne out by the fact that in 1940, some 500 folks still lived here.  This was when the WPA Guide to Arizona called Oatman an “old-time mining camp with modern touches...”  But after the mines were shuttered, it faded rapidly.  After the war ended, only scattered tourism and its position on US Highway (Route) 66 kept it hanging in there, another of the West’s tough little towns refusing to die gracefully.  BUT.  In the early 1950s, Oatman’s was gutted when Route 66 was realigned and rerouted far to the south and east, completely bypassing the town.  Its reason to live was gone, and all that remained were about 60 loyal Oatmanites who hung around to “make sure everybody got out all right.”


Despite the twentieth century boom and modern fire-fighting methods, Oatman still experienced a couple disastrous conflagrations that left large gaps in the building-lined business district.  Even so, enough remained, so that during the 1960s and 1970s, folks rediscovered this hidden gem, and a rebirth began.  In 2010, the census counted 135 folks here living in 74 of the available 112 housing units (34% vacancy rate).  These are the folks that have reclaimed Oatman’s glory days, fixed up the stores, and hung out the welcome mat.  Many of the stores along the main street have been turned into Route 66 memorabilia sales outlets, or other tourist-dollar attractors.  Four-legged, long-eared, carrot-sucking greeters wander about the main street slowing traffic and mooching edibles from tourists - so watch your goodies!  These great-great grand-offspring from the mining days have become Oatman’s largest draw and the town capitalizes on that, drawing tourists from around the world looking to experience the Wild West ambiance of Oatman.  However, please exercise caution around the burros as they are not “pets” but semi-civilized wild animals.


On an earlier trip to Oatman in 1997, we experienced the aggressive personalities of these critters.  As is our custom, we have become ghost town (or semi-ghost town) ice cream connoisseurs, sampling the frozen wares in many of the places we stop.  During this particular episode on a hot summer afternoon, we had finished wandering about the colorful main street and parked our tired “down-sitters” on a shady bench under the canopy in front of one of the stores.  My wife handed me a drumstick she had just purchased and as I peeled the paper off the frozen treat, the wrapper disappeared and I nearly lost the cone to the vacuum cleaner lips of an inquisitive burro colt that snuck up behind me.  Just then the screen door flew open and another burro colt bounced out of the store, followed by the storekeeper wielding a roll of newspaper. 


“And stay out!”


Such was life in Oatman in 1997. 


Fifteen years later, life in Oatman hasn’t changed much.  The burros still steal what they can from unwary tourists, or those that actually find the special burro chow to feed them with.  Tour busses arrive, packed to the gills with their cargoes of German-speaking, blond, blue-eyed folks toting Zeiss cameras and brown-eyed, black haired Sony-toting Japanese tourists.  We were lucky during our last visit as there were no mechanical worms, so it was just us and a couple hundred drive-in tourists mixed scores of burros!


Even without the packaged bus-delivered tourists, there were still a lot of folks strolling the sidewalks, shopping in the stores and steeping back into time at the Oatman Hotel and its famous dollar bill-covered restaurant.  Looking out onto the street through the dollar bill-lined window frames makes for an interesting view of the town.  The shady sidewalk in front of the hotel is inviting, and the weathered sign hanging over the street is showing its age, although it’s not nearly as old as the hotel.  If you are real vigilant, you might even spot a ghost waving to you.  Just up the street is the old Oatman Theatre Building with its corrugated tin siding and faded sign on the parapet.  While wandering the streets of this town, also look for the details of a past life.  Seek out the painted details of windows, old and new murals and faded signs.  Chuckle at little whimsical touches that often get overlooked; such as some of the business signs - and my favorite - a very under-stated warning sign in front of a cactus patch on the south side of Main Street.  It would truly be best to abide by it!  There are also numerous artistic pieces such as wall art made from cast-offs, scattered about.  In addition, like in any other self-respecting mining town, there are relics of the old days lying about.  Check out the old mining ore car and rock breaker.  Both remain to share their historic past with those who seek it out!


I was enjoying taking photos of the town when my son Matthew came up and said he found a copy of my first book, Dust in the Wind - A Guide to American Ghost Towns on the shelf in one of the stores.  Of course I had to check it out, and after speaking with the storekeeper, I autographed it for them.


It was finally time to leave.  After loading up the van, we headed up Main Street, and followed old Route 66 north as it twisted and turned, finally delivering us to our next stop at GOLDROAD, leaving us with many memories of gold, hungry burros and whispers of the past.




·        SW¼ Sec 14, SE¼ Sec 15, NW¼ Sec 23, T19N, R20W, Gila & Salt River Meridian

·        Latitude: 35.0263915 / 35° 01' 35" N

·        Longitude: -114.3835698 / 114° 23' 01" W



This in conjunction with GOLDROAD was our GHOST TOWN OF THE MONTH for March 1999.

With a major 2012 update, and addition of photos, it was reposted as our GHOST TOWN OF THE MONTH for September 2012.


Oatman is one of the towns featured in my newest book, GHOST TOWNS: Yesterday & TodayTM.





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FIRST POSTED:  March 01, 1999 (as Oatman & Goldroad)

LAST UPDATED: October 05, 2012 (split into separate pages)




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