By Jim Chamberlain
It is hidden in the Black Mountains of Northern Arizona. The village is part ghost town, tourist stop, and wildlife sanctuary. It was named after a woman who never lived there. I had to travel twenty- six miles from Kingman up a steep and winding part of Route 66 that has more curves than a swimsuit model. You really must want to get to Oatman. While there are many interesting stops along Route 66 in Arizona such as the corner in Winslow, the Twin Arrows of Holbrook, the Copper Cart in Seligman, the Hackberry general store and the Cool Springs Museum, the town of Oatman is the most interesting, entertaining, and eclectic stop along this famous highway in Arizona.
The Cool Springs store and museum is the first iconic stop out of Kingman on the way to Oatman. The stone store is decorated with old gas pumps and signs recalling its better days as a fueling stop along the highway. I stopped at the top of Sitgreaves Pass to take in the expanse of Arizona desert and to catch my breath after the many twisty, switchback, and hairpin curves of Route 66 past Cool Springs to reach the 3500-foot viewpoint. Some parts had no guardrails and sheer drop-offs. My two-seat roadster made the drive fun, but large trucks and RVs should go the long way around through Bullhead City. A few more downhill curving miles would get me to Oatman.
The road curves around another bend and the first buildings appear. I arrived on a Saturday morning and the town was already filling up with visitors. A short distance away a burro stood in the middle of the street greeting new arrivals. These animals are alleged to be descendants of the ones used by miners to haul ore from the surrounding mountains.
In Oatman, Burros have the right of way. Most of them will allow you to pet them but what they really want is food, either carrots or hay cubes called “Burro Chow,” which I found in the local shops. The store fronts are old and worn reflecting the ghost town feel of the place. Gold was discovered in 1863 and another strike in 1915 led to a boomtown. Being on Route 66 kept the town alive after the gold ran out till it was bypassed by a more modern roadway in 1953. The town was almost abandoned till its emergence as a tourist stop with the growth of the gambling town of Laughlin, Nevada which is 28 miles away.
The shops are decorated with names like Classy Ass, Jackass Junction, Olive Oatman Saloon, and Lees Lumber Co. Route 66 memorabilia are the main souvenirs and choices are varied and numerous. Metal Cactus, jerky and German roasted nuts, replica signs, handmade jewelry, and local art and even a Route 66 Leather store give shoppers a variety of items to choose from. The most interesting of all its old buildings is The Oatman Hotel.
The sign says “Oatman Hotel 1902” and the paint is peeling but inside there are walls of money. Literally, the walls inside the hotel restaurant and bar area are plastered with thousands of one-dollar bills. Many are signed by the visitors who pinned them to the walls. You can enjoy songs and stories from a Willie Nelson look alike or just sit in the bar and people watch. The hotel survived a fire that destroyed most of the town in 1921. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, movie stars of the thirties and forties stayed here. Gable used to visit and gamble with the local miners.
Oatman, like many of the small old mining towns around Arizona, has its characters and unusual residents. I stopped by and talked to Mr. Yellowhammer, a local native artist who sits outside his small store most days. If you are lucky, he may invite you to his workbench inside and show you his techniques for his unique and priced jewelry.
The loud report of a pistol sounded through the air as the Oatman Outlaws began their weekend gun fight show on Main Street. Three burros quickly made their escape down the road as the gunfighters stepped into the street for their showdown. These shows are always fun, and the reenactors are friendly and pose with tourists for selfies. I watched from the wooden porch of the Olive Oatman Saloon. This restaurant and ice cream saloon are decorated with a picture of the town’s namesake, Olive Oatman.
The Oatman family who had travelled out west from Missouri in 1851 were brutally killed and the fourteen-year-old Olive and her younger sister were taken captive. She was later sold to the Mojave tribe where she received her distinctive blue lined chin tattoo. She was released 5 years later and was reunited with her brother who had also survived the massacre at Fort Yuma. In 1965, a television show featuring Ronald Reagan called “The Lawless Have Laws” told Olive’s story on “Death Valley Days”. The character of “Eva” in the AMC television series “Hell on Wheels” is partially based on Olive Oatman. Olive died in Texas at age 65 never having lived in the town that bears her name.
I left Oatman and headed towards Phoenix along one of the longest parts of Route 66 remaining in Arizona. The famous road stretches north from Kingman in a gentle loop of 74 miles through the desert and rolling hills. I was fascinated by the small roadside attractions and stores that still dot the landscape. I stopped to view the Giganticus Headicus at the Antares Point store. The Hackberry General store was even better. The outside is decorated with old gas pumps, signs, and old rusted cars. One had a large tabby cat sleeping on the tattered bench seat. The inside of the store with its old-time café displays complete with mannequins, vintage furniture and the inevitable Route 66 logo is worth a browse.
You pass thru the town of Peach Springs on the Hualapai Reservation before reaching the unique Grand Canyon Caverns area. Here you can spend a night underground in the Cavern hotel room or visit the metal dinosaurs which stand guard nearby.
The famous Burma Shave signs that dotted the original roadway still exist. You are greeted with more recent signs three times between the Caverns and the next town of Seligman. My favorite reads as follows: “Papa, slow down,” “Sakes Alive”,” Mama missed signs four and five,” “Burma Shave”. I will let you drive the road and pick your favorite.
The town of Seligman marks the end of the road as Route 66 joins Interstate 40 as it heads East toward Flagstaff, Holbrook, and Winslow where you can visit more parts of Route 66. There are several old motels, gift shops and the brightly decorated ice cream drive-in that really gives you the feel of being in the 1950’s Seligman. I loved the brightly painted mural on the side of the Copper Cart Motoporium and its unusual motorcycle sculpture. An old black and white police car is stationed nearby giving speeding motorists a reminder to slow down before they drive out of the past into the real world again on Interstate 40. The odd town of Oatman is still my favorite place of my adventure along Arizona’s piece of the fabled roadway, Route 66.
Arizona Highways Photoscapes is going to Route 66 in September on the 23rd thru 26th. There is still space available. They will be visiting the Odd Town of Oatman.