The "living ghost town" of Oatman, Arizona is a Route 66 must-see

Welcome to one of the quirkiest towns west of the Mississippi!

Across the Colorado River, near Laughlin, Nevada along Historic Route 66 lies Oatman, Arizona, a former mining town that's become a timeless and iconic stop for everyone traveling down the Mother Road. Today, the quirky "living" ghost town is pretty touristy and overrun by burros, but it's managed to retain its charm and welcomes scores of visitors every year. Locatd in the Black Mountains of Arizona's Mohave County, Oatman enjoys an elevation of over 2,700 feet. It was settled shortly after 1915, when two prospectors discovered gold that earned them a $10 million payday. There were plenty of casual settlers before its official establishment, but after that gold find, the population of the town grew to over 3,500 residents in only a single year.


Named after Olive Oatman (a young girl from Illinois) who, according to legend, was kidnapped by the Yavapai tribe who forced her to become a slave, was later traded to the Mohave Indians, who treated her much better. They adopted her as one of their own and tattooed her face (as was tribal custom). She was released after spending three years with the tribe. Her family were settlers in the area that would become Oatman.

In 1863 gold was discovered in the Black Mountains, and this brought many prospectors to stake claims. For the remainder of the 19th century mining in the area steadily decreased, until the Tom Reed mine was opened, and the $10 million gold discovery occurred. The period in Oatman from 1915 to 1917 has gone down in history as one of America's last great gold rushes. Oatman was a veritable gold rush boom town, in every sense of the phrase, and the mines went strong for the better part of a decade.


Then in 1921, a devastating fire broke out which took much of the town's buildings, except the Oatman Hotel (and Dollar Bill Bar), which was built back in 1902, at the turn of the century, just before the final major gold rush. The two-story hotel is one of America's most famous historic landmarks. It's a modest structure, built of adobe, but it gained fame when the world's most famous movie star chose it as his honeymoon destination. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were the Hollywood golden couple, and in 1839, after a wedding in Kingman, AZ (another major Route 66 town), Gable and Lombard checked into the Oatman Hotel. Gable was a big fan of poker, and it's said he loved the town and became friends with the miners. Today you can visit the "Gable/Lombard Honeymoon Suite", which is still a major tourist draw. The hotel has another claim to fame, this one a bit more on the paranormal side. It's believed the ghost of Oatie, a "friendly poltergeist" inhabits the hotel. The story goes that William Ray Flour, a miner from Ireland who came to America to seek his fortune, died at the hotel from "excessive alcohol consumption." As legend has it, his body remained undiscovered for several days, and then buried out back in a shallow grave. 


Sadly, it all went downhill from after the fire. In 1924, United Eastern Mines shut down operations. Fortunately for Oatman, even though the district had produced $40 million in gold by the 40s (until the government shut down the remaining gold mining businesses as part of the war effort to mine for metals needed for the military) it was still in a pretty favorable location, right along Route 66. However, a new route bypassed Oatman in the mid 1950s, and nearly a decade later the town was a virtual ghost town. 


But, the town of Oatman wasn't ready to give up without a fight! Today you can see fake gunfights in the streets, by performers of course, wild burros roam carefree and will come right up to your car for a photo. And there's still plenty of places to grab a drink, buy some kitschy souvenirs or just take in the classic ambiance of a quirky little mining town.


After the bypass road was constructed, Oatman was pretty much abandoned, until renewed interest in traveling down Route 66 started up again in the 1980s. Oatman became a "living ghost town" and became quite the draw for tourists. The "Wild Burros" are the ancestors of the burro's which worked the mines. After the mines closed, the burros were cut loose and remain to this day free residents of Oatman. 


In addition to the historic buildings and burros, Oatman also features Wild West Shootouts, pretty much every day from 1:30pm til 3:30pm. The Oatman Ghost Riders perform the shootouts in the town, but are also contracted to perform at "Shotgun Weddings", conduct tour bus "robberies" just like the old stage coach hold ups back in the day. The town boasts forty gift, antique, and craft shops, as well as old timey photo shops, Judy’s Saloon, live music, and eateries.


If you find yourself driving down Route 66, do yourself a favor and pull into Oatman for an afternoon or an entire day. Grab a drink at the Oatman Hotel's bar, which has thousands of dollar bills lining the walls. Get lunch at Olive Oatman Restaurant, and then a scoop of ice cream at the Ice Cream Saloon, which features a large painting of Olive Oatman.


Today, Oatman is as lively as ever, with their annual Bed Races, Sidewalk Egg Fry Contest on July 4th (it gets pretty hot in Oatman, let me tell you), they also haver Gold Camp Days, International Burro Bisket Toss, which happens Labor Day weekend, and a Book Fair and Bake Sale which takes place Veteans Day weekend.


Read More: Oatman Chamber of Commerce

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This was originally written for Roadtrippers, a great resource for anyone interested in travel.
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