Gold Lured Route 66 To Oatman
Only a decade after automobiles first appeared on streets visionaries in the industry made plans for transcontinental highways to supplant rail lines. The already well-traveled northern Arizona transportation corridor offered an obvious route to California. Beginning in 1911, The National Old Trails Road Association led a campaign to improve existing wagon tracks that followed the Santa Fe Railroad from Gallup to Flagstaff to Kingman and Needles. But at the same time rich gold deposits were discovered in the Black Mountains west of Kingman. So instead of following the easy route along the railroad from Kingman down the Sacramento Valley and around the southern end of the mountains then on to the Colorado River, the automobile highway set out across the valley and into the rugged mountains. Vehicles would have to struggle up exhausting grades and twist around hairpin turns. But twenty mule team wagons and then the first slow motor trucks could bring supplies and miners to more than a dozen new gold rush camps, bringing back concentrated ore and ingots. Though an easier route following the rails, known as the Yucca Cutoff, would remain an option, the main road to California braved the mountains in order to follow the money. And when the money dried up, the highway left town.
Gold had first been discovered in the Black Mountains at the Moss Mine in 1863, the year Arizona became a territory separate from New Mexico. Threats from Indians, however, kept miners away until Fort Mohave on the river could corral the natives. Transportation of ore and mining machinery became more profitable with the coming of the railroad to Kingman in 1883. Prospectors then searched every ravine and hill. A fabulously rich gold vein was discovered in 1900 in a remote gulch along a wagon road 25 miles west of Kingman and named the Gold Road Mine. About five miles south, near a prominent geographic feature called Boundary Cone, the Vivian Mine was discovered in 1902. A camp called Blue Ridge appeared along the road between the two mines near some promising quartz outcrops. Nearby in 1904, another rich vein of gold was discovered and California investors organized the Tom Reed Gold Mines Company. The Oatman mining district was created and another town began to grow at a wide place in the road between Blue Ridge and the Tom Reed mine.
A Fred Harvey Company postcard issued about 1917 shows substantial buildings on both sides of the single main street, including the largest hotel, the St. Francis, with 3-story porch at left of center. Behind the St. Francis, the top of the head frame is visible for the United Eastern shaft number one. Shaft number two is on the hillside. The view is looking northeast. (I’ve added color to the black & white original.)
This view of Oatman’s main street looking southeast shows a circa-1920 Velie touring car apparently headed east on an endurance run. The St. Francis Hotel is the tallest building on the right side of the street. Next door, with two-story porch is the much smaller Oatman Hotel (not the same as the present Oatman Hotel). Most of the buildings on that side of the street were lost in the 1920s to fire or demolition. Velie automobiles were produced 1908-1928 in Moline, Illinois. (California Historical Society photo at USC library)
The new mining camp was named Oatman, in honor of Olive Oatman, victim of a tragedy called the Oatman Massacre, an incident widely reported across the US and long remembered in Arizona. On the way to California in February 1851, Apaches attacked the Oatman family along the Gila River 11 miles north of the present Sentinel service stop on Interstate 8. Thirteen-year-old Olive’s parents and four siblings were slain. Her younger brother Lorenzo was thrown over a cliff and left for dead, while she and her younger sister were taken captive. The younger sister died in captivity and Olive was sold to the Mohave tribe, supposedly living in the Black Mountains near the future site of the town that would bear her name. Lorenzo survived and with the help of a man in Yuma was able to free Olive five years later. The bother and sister went to live with family in New York. Thus the glittering wealth and even the name of the new town in Mohave County attracted much attention.
The Tom Reed vein was hard to follow making production sporadic. But anticipating payoff, another group of seven men studied the geology, formed the United Eastern Mining Company and had a shaft sunk on the north side of town. Within a few years they had mapped out the underground vein and were profiting handsomely. The Big Jim Company was then formed and tapped into the same vein southeast of the Tom Reed. These three mines became the largest and wealthiest, producing most of the $36 million up to 1931, mostly in gold, that would come out of the district. The Tom Reed produced a million dollars in gold from 40,000 tons of ore in 1909 alone, its first year of sustained production. From 1908 to 1913, gold and silver valued at more than $13 million came out of the Tom Reed workings. The United Eastern produced $10.8 million and the Big Jim, which soon came under United Eastern control, extracted $3.8 million. After costs, these mines provided more than $8 million in pure profit for investors, in a time when miners worked for $3-$5 a day at most, lodging could be had for $1.50 a week or less and meals cost pocket change. The Gold Road mine produced another $7.3 million up to 1931. As a result, the Oatman district has been the richest gold producer in Arizona.
This real photo postcard of the recently closed Tom Reed mill was first published in 1933 by Burton Frasher (1888-1955) of Pomona, California. The power plant at the mill (probably in the foreground) also supplied electricity for the town of Oatman. The mill’s water supply, piped in from the mountains in the background, also supplied the town. But while the Tom Reed also owned several buildings, Oatman was not a company town like Ajo.
At the south end of the business district there is a flagpole in the middle of the street, where the street makes a turn toward the west. Where the pickup truck is parked used to be the largest store in town. Next to the Arizona Hotel and café is Oatman Drug Company and soda fountain. The Honolulu Club is in the Desert Inn building at right. Only the drug store building survives today. It was restored around 1963 for filming of the movie How the West Was Won. This view is cropped from a black & white real photo postcard issued about 1935 by Gallup Studio of Chloride (later Kingman).
The second boom beginning in 1913 seemed to seal Oatman’s prosperity and the population in the vicinity soared to 8,000 or more. Wooden miner’s shacks spread up the steep slopes on either side of the single main street, following the pattern of Arizona mining towns like Morenci, Bisbee and Jerome. But, title to the land didn’t pass to residents because of the precedence of mineral claims. Oatman citizens filed for an official town site early in 1916, to include 75 buildings and 300 residents but were turned aside by the federal government and the county court. While the main street had a handful of substantial commercial buildings, much of the profit may have benefited suppliers in Kingman and Needles more. A weekly newspaper in Oatman began publishing in 1914 but only lasted a handful of years. While the newspaper once reported three churches in town, for most of its history Oatman had none. Today, after languishing for at least 50 years, little glitter remains.
Frashers Fotos of Pomona made this view of Route 66 looking west about 1936. About four miles from Oatman the oiled dirt road is winding down the west side of the summit toward Gold Road. A few years later, the highway department graded a pull-off and viewpoint on the hill at left from which three states could be seen (Arizona, California & Nevada; compare 1942 photo at oldhiways.com/Route66.html). The Colorado River is in the distant valley. The climb over Gold Road Grade was harrowing for many drivers, and cars in those days tended to overheat. For a few dollars, a gas station in Gold Road offered to tow cars over the summit.
Burton Frasher visited Oatman in 1933 and 1934 and probably several times more since it was on the main highway. He probably photographed this view looking southeast from a hill near the United Eastern mine in 1934. Most of the commercial buildings on the west side of the main street are gone. The second Oatman Hotel (1924) is on the east side of the street with the dark roof. Above the roof, farther down the street can be seen a row of windows in the Arizona Hotel with the façade of the Desert Inn just to the right. The Tom Reed mill is to the right of center.
Arizona Highways published this colorful view of Oatman in the 1940s, looking northwest from near the Tom Reed mill. The rear of the 3-story plus basement Desert Inn is right of center, where Route 66 turns toward the west. The United Eastern No. 2 shaft is on the hill above the Inn, and the bluish building on the hill at top left is the schoolhouse.
Government action eventually put an end to the boom and led to closing of all the mines. Over a number of years, the United States moved in the direction of price controls on gold and away from using the precious metal as a currency standard. At the same time, two world wars stifled gold mining in favor of strategic metals production. Both the United Eastern and Big Jim had to close in 1924 after the post World War One recession. Then the Great Depression made operation of the larger mines unprofitable. The Tom Reed closed in 1932. Big Jim had resumed activity only to close again by 1934. Families moved away and the population of Oatman dropped. Small businesses turned to servicing highway travelers with food, lodging and gas.
During the good times following 1924, tourists could afford to travel The National Old Trails Road in automobiles. Despite the rough terrain, traffic through Oatman increased every year. In 1926 named highways were replaced by a system of numbered federal routes and Oatman became a service stop on Route 66. At least two auto courts (motels) offered cabins for the night, while a number of garages sold gas and oil and made repairs. But with decreased gold production, highway engineers prepared to re-route US 66 away from the Black Mountains. World War Two put highway construction on the back burner, but it also greatly inhibited leisure travel. The last small gold mines were ordered closed by the federal government in 1942 to divert resources to war production. After the war, engineers looked to the Yucca Cutoff. In 1952, Route 66 bypassed Oatman and the population quickly dwindled to less than 100. Thirty years later, Interstate 40 replaced Route 66 and nostalgia for cars with tail fins brought tourists back to what remained of the once thriving gold rush camps. Burros had been a valuable means of transport to remote mines but stray animals wandering Oatman’s main street were a nuisance in 1917. By 1977 they had become a novelty for tourists and Oatman’s most recognizable ambassadors.
Norton Allen did this map for the May 1952 issue of Desert Magazine to locate a river pebble gathering area for rock hounds. At top it shows Arizona Highway 68 from Kingman through Union Pass to Bullhead City. Then there is US 66 through Sitgreaves Pass to Gold Road and Oatman. I believe construction began in 1951 on the Yucca Cutoff and it opened as Route 66 in 1952. It was rebuilt again in the 1960s to become Interstate 40. When finally entirely replaced by the interstate, Route 66 was decommissioned as a federal highway in 1985 and Arizona remnants were returned to county maintenance. Recognizing its historic and recreational value, the Arizona Department of Transportation marked the remaining portions of the original alignment as Historic Route 66 in 1987. In 2005 these were designated a National Scenic Byway and then an All-American Road in 2009.
By the 1960s when this photo was taken from the schoolhouse hill, a few people were moving to Oatman for the solitude, the climate, the location and to serve the increasing tourist travel. Trailers provided inexpensive housing for most, but one big stick-built house is under construction on the hillside. Fifty years before, people settled here because of the quartz outcrop seen at top center, called Elephant’s Tooth, a sure sign of gold. Along the main street only three big buildings survive. Beginning below left, they are the Oatman Theatre building (tan false front), the Oatman Hotel (2-story with four arches) and the drug store building (long metal roof below Elephant’s Tooth).
When this view was made in the early 1970s, to leave the Interstate for Oatman was a fun thing to do. You could feed the feral burros, still get cold beer as in the old days or laugh at the old west parodies at Fast Fanny’s Place. Below Elephant’s Tooth at left is the post office. The Z-Inn Hotel is in the theater building, and the Oatman Hotel is the two-story structure farther down the street with the metal roof. Once the Hotel Durlin (1910s), then Hotel Everett, then the Ox Yoke Hotel (1930s) and finally Oatman Hotel, it no longer offered rooms, just food and drink, with a museum on the second floor.
Spencer Crump, Route 66, America’s First Main Street (1994)
Roman Malach, Oatman (1975)
“Oatman, the Wonder Gold Camp,” E. H. Schiek & Co., Market Service Bulletin 160, February 1925. The Los Angeles investment broker had just opened an office in Oatman. Digital copy by Arizona Department of Library & Archives.
Stanley W. Paher, Northwestern Arizona Ghost Towns (1980)
James E. & Barbara H Sherman, Ghost Towns of Arizona (1969)
Philip Varney, Arizona’s Best Ghost Towns (1980)
Michael Wallis, Route 66, The Mother Road (1990)
Sonoran Desert field trip guides
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