OATMAN, Ariz. — In 1863, prospector and mountain man John T. Moss was wandering the Black Mountains of Arizona. He, like so many other men of the time, dreamed of finding the “Mother Load” and becoming wealthy off a big gold strike.
He had ridden with the Pony Express, acted as a scout for the U.S. Army at Fort Mohave, and developed a friendship with many of the local tribes.
Two years earlier, he had found gold not far from Fort Mohave and traveled to San Francisco, where he sold off his interest in the mine at a great profit.
This time he had some moderate success and filed several mining claims in the hills above the Colorado River, about nine miles south of his previous strike. One he named after himself, Moss. The second he named for a young girl who had been captured by one of the local Indian tribes and lived with them for years. Her name was Olive Oatman.
Olive’s story was well known. Almost all of her family was killed in an ambush by Indians they had befriended while making their way West in 1851. Olive and her sister were spared and taken as slaves. Her brother was left for dead, but managed to survive.
After mining about $24,000 worth of ore, Moss returned to San Francisco and boasted of a much richer strike than he had actually found. He was able to sell off his stake in the mine for $30,000.
Mining continued in the area, but finds were modest.
In 1915, the United Eastern Mining Company would finally find the location of a rich vein of gold, and the town of Oatman flourished. The boom would last about 10 years, making Oatman one of the largest gold producers in the West.
In 1921 a fire broke out in the town, and many of the small wooden buildings were completely destroyed. The two-story Oatman Hotel was one of the buildings spared from the flames. It was built from Adobe bricks and survived untouched.
The United States government established the first National Highway System in 1926 and created a series of highways to connect the main streets of many American small towns. One of the first recognized highways was U.S. 66, which connected Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif. Route 66 would become a major thoroughfare for travelers and commerce crossing the country.
The new highway system proved to be a boon to many small towns, and Oatman was no exception. In fact, Route 66 saved the town. The United Eastern Mining Company had shuttered operations in Oatman, and their closing eliminated most of the jobs in the area.
Weary travelers would find a brief pause in Oatman, where they could get fuel and supplies or even spend the night at the Oatman Hotel.
Perhaps the most famous of the hotel’s guests, Hollywood actors Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon in Oatman after they were married in Kingman, Ariz. in March 1939. Gable enjoyed the rugged, desolate town far away from the glitz of Hollywood. He and Lombard would return to the town many times in the following years, Gable often trying his luck playing cards with the locals.
In 1953, the new Interstate Highway system completely bypassed Oatman after Interstate 40 was completed.Today, however, Oatman has experienced an increase in tourists. Many visitors to casinos in Laughlin, Nev. who have an interest in Route 66 lore take the drive into the Black Hills to visit the small “ghost town”.
The Oatman Hotel and Restaurant has been converted to a museum and restaurant. Often visitors will sign and staple a one-dollar bill to the walls or ceilings before they leave. Another attraction is the wild burros, descendants of pack burros who escaped or were abandoned by the miners. The animals wander freely around town, always on the lookout for a tourist with treats.
There are also many festivals and events in the town during the year, including the Annual Oatman Egg Fry held each Fourth of July. Contestants have just 15 minutes to fry an egg on the streets of the town using only solar power – normal summer temperatures are over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the rules, they must use eggs provided by the organizers, and the location of the special chickens that lay the special eggs is a closely guarded secret. The event attracts hundreds of visitors to the town each year.
More information can be found on the Oatman Chamber of Commerce website at www.oatmangoldroad.org.