Oatman’s “Wild” Burros
Text and videos by Jim Bremner.
Oatman started life over 100 years ago as a mining tent camp, and quickly became a flourishing gold-mining center. In 1915, two miners struck a $10 million gold find, and within a year, the town’s population grew to more than 3,500.
Oatman was named in honor of Olive Oatman, who as a young girl, was kidnapped by an Apache tribe, sold to Mojave Indians and later rescued in a trade in 1857 near the current site of the town. Oatman was served by a narrow gauge rail line between 1903 and 1905 that ran 17 miles to the Colorado River near Needles, California.
But both the population and mining booms were short-lived. In 1921, a fire burned down many of the smaller shacks in town, and three years later, the main mining company, United Eastern Mines, shut down operations for good. Oatman survived by catering to travelers on old U.S. Route 66. But in the 1960s, when the route became what is now Interstate 40, Oatman almost died.
Oatman is a fun place to visit — an authentic old western town with burros roaming the streets and gunfights staged on weekends. The burros are tame and can be hand fed. When my wife and I visited in January, I was surprised to see five old Model T Fords out for a Sunday drive down the main street of Oatman. The cars fit right in with the romantic image of this old town, taking us back to 1915 era old west.
The Oatman Hotel, built in 1902, is the oldest two-story adobe structure in Mojave County and has housed many miners, movie stars, politicians and other scoundrels. The town was used as the location for several movies such as How The West Was Won, Foxfire and Edge of Eternity.
Clark Gable and Carol Lombard honeymooned at the Oatman Hotel March 18, 1939. Their honeymoon suite is still one of the major attractions at the Oatman Hotel. Gable returned there often to play poker with the local miners and enjoy the solitude of the desert.
Oatman’s “wild” burros are the descendants of burros brought here by the miners in the late 1800s; when the miners no longer needed them, they were turned loose. Each morning they come into town looking for food. They wander the streets and greet the tourists. Burro pellets and carrots are for sale at many of the shops — the burros will eat all day if you feed them. Shortly before sunset they wander back to the hills for the night.
There are plenty of shopping opportunities in Oatman. Many of the shopkeepers make their own products and obtain other rare and interesting items from far and near. There are many handmade leather goods, handmade Indian jewelry and excellent knives sold right from the wooden sidewalks running the length of the town.
Local gunfights are staged on the weekends.
One of the more colorful shopkeepers is known as Betty the Bead Lady, who for many years, drilled beads and sold them to the Navajos for their jewelry making. She is still a fixture in downtown Oatman operating three retail establishments — stop in and visit her.
There are two main roads linking Oatman to State Highway 95. One is paved and the other is a dirt road leading to Bullhead City about 25 miles away. The dirt road is in fairly good condition and is certainly a pleasurable egress from Oatman. The scenery along this route is excellent and will really make you feel like you’re back in the untamed days of the old west.
You can see the old mine tailing piles and a fascinating variety of desert vegetation and rock formations. Most of today’s cars would have little trouble on this road when it is dry. Your cellular phone will probably work most of the way, too.
Before you go … visit the Oatman Chamber of Commerce page for updates and information about Oatman, AZ.
About the wild burros: Enjoy the wild burros roaming the streets of Oatman. Keep in mind the BLM now discourages the feeding of these animals in the roadway (on Route 66) and fines will be given if caught feeding these animals. It is for the health and safety of the burros and for the safety of the tourists as well. It helps keep the road from being blocked and the potential for vehicle/burro conflicts. Source: Oatman Chamber of Commerce and Rout 66 News.
Protect your dog … Please keep your dog(s) on a leash and away from the burros. The shop owners warned us that the burros would sometimes attack dogs. There are also signs warning about the potential for burros to attack to dogs.