We were in Wickenburg for the weekend in May 2021 with Neighbors Ron and Elaine. On Sunday morning we got up early to take the 2 and a half-hour drive up to Oatman, Az, one of the items on my bucket list. We connected to I-40 near Kingman and got off at old Route 66 and continued heading west. Soon, the road became switchbacks with signs indicating “Slow” and also “Burros in the Road Ahead”. For the uninitiated, “burro” is Spanish for “donkey”.
Sure enough, around a steep corner was a gang of burros waiting for a passing car to give them something to eat. Ms. Karen opened the passenger side window and a burro stuck his head inside the car. We didn’t have any burro food, so she patted his snout and we proceeded on our way.
When we arrived in Oatman 10 very narrow, windy miles later, the street was crowded with people touring this old town, visiting open shops and feeding the ubiquitous burros. The burros are holdovers from mining days when the mines were shut down and the miners let their beasts of burden loose into the surrounding desert. While they seem tame enough, they are still wild animals.
The name Oatman was chosen in honor of Olive Oatman, a young Illinois girl who was captured and enslaved by Indians, probably from the Tolkepayas tribe, during her pioneer family’s massacre going on their journey westward in 1851. She was later sold or traded to the Mojaves, who adopted her and tattooed her face in the custom of the tribe. She was released in 1856 at Fort Yuma to her brother, who had survived the massacre of the Oatman family.
In 1863, prospector Johnny Moss discovered gold in the Black Mountains and staked several claims, one named the Moss and another after Olive Oatman, whose story was well known. For the next half-century, mining waxed and waned in the remote district until new technology, reduced transportation costs, and new gold discoveries brought prosperity to Oatman in the early 20th century. The opening of the Tom Reed mine, followed by the discovery of a rich ore body in the nearby United Eastern Mining Company’s property in 1915, brought one of the desert’s last gold rushes. The boom of 1915–17 gave Oatman all the characters and characteristics of any gold rush boom town. For about a decade, the mines of Oatman were among the largest gold producers in the American West.
The district had produced US$40,000,000 (equivalent to $703,801,000 in 2020) in gold by 1941, when the remainder of the town’s gold mining operations were ordered shut down by the government as part of the country’s war effort, because other metals were needed.
In 1921, a fire burned down many of Oatman’s smaller buildings, but spared the Oatman Hotel built in 1902. It remains the oldest two-story adobe structure in Mohave County and is a Mohave County historical landmark. One of the hotel’s major attractions is a room designated as the suite where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard supposedly spent their honeymoon after their 1939 wedding in Kingman AZ. The notion that the couple actually stayed here is in doubt.
The hotel isn’t open for overnight guests but it has a good restaurant and we took lunch there on their back patio. It was crowded but the food was good and so was the service.
Oatman was fortunate to be located on busy Route 66 as it catered to travelers driving between Kingman, Arizona, and Needles, California. Yet even that advantage was short-lived because the town was completely bypassed in 1953 when Route 66 was realigned between Kingman and Needles. By the 1960s, Oatman was all but abandoned after the completion of I-40. Today, however, at least on the weekends, Oatman is a busy place. If you go, watch out for burros on the road.