Oatman, Arizona ~ A Living Ghost Town!

Oatman, Arizona ~ A Living Ghost Town!

The old historic Oatman Ghost Town is located in the mountains next to the Colorado River near Laughlin, Nevada and Bullhead City, Arizona. The town of Oatman began as a small riverside pioneer community in the mid 1800s, but this town did not attract many residents till gold was discovered there in the early 1900s. The local mining operation produced quite a bit of pure gold, so thousands of folks with gold fever moved to this area and Oatman became a sizable community.  After a few years, the gold mining operation started tapering off, but a fairly large population remained to call this town home. 

Shortly after the age of automobile tourism began in the mid 1920s, Route 66 was constructed.  Route 66 passed directly through Oatman and this town soon became major tourist destination. A few decades later, Route 66 was rerouted to a different alignment because the road through the mountainous terrain from Oatman to Kingman was too dangerous, so Oatman ended up being completely bypassed.  The town of Oatman suffered a major loss in tourism income after Route 66 disappeared and the town’s population eventually dwindled from a large population down to about 60 citizens. After a few more years passed, the western ghost town tourism trend started picking up steam and old historic Oatman was reborn as a modern living ghost town tourist attraction.  

Oatman actually was not the original name of this ghost town.  This small riverside community had several different names in the early years, till Olive Oatman made this town famous back in 1856 after her famous ordeal. Olive Oatman was 14 when her family was killed while going through the Arizona territory on a Mormon wagon train heading to Utah in the early 1850s.  Olive Oatman was captured and enslaved by the Yavapai Tribe of the Arizona Territory.  Later, the Yavapai or their Paiute allies pawned Olive Oatman off to the Mojave Tribe, which were a more peaceful people that lived further south in the desert near the Colorado River.  The Mojave Tribe adopted Olive Oatman as one of their own and she learned the native ways.  Chin tattoos are part of Mojave tribal tradition, so Olive Oatman was given a Mojave black chin tattoo.  Olive Oatman actually was the first caucasian female in America to have a tattoo of any kind.

In 1856 Olive Oatmen was cut loose by the Mojave Tribe and she was rescued near the little pioneer settlement by the Colorado River that later became famous for gold. After Olive Oatman returned to the European American riverside community, the town was renamed as Oatman in her honor. Newspaper reporters and novelists made Olive Oatman famous.  Olive Oatman did a publicity tour all over America and everybody wanted to see her Mojave Tribal Chin Tattoo.  Olive Oatman made a comfortable income while touring and she called the town named Oatman her her home. Olive Oatman has become a symbol of the wild west in this western Arizona region ever since.

The historic town of Oatman is a fun ghost town to visit and there is plenty for tourists to see and do!  Oatman Ghost Town is also famous in modern times for its high population of wild burros.  After the gold mining operations came to an end in this region, the burros were set free to live in the wild and now the local burros roam the streets of Oatman as they mingle with tourists that stop by to experience this old ghost town. 

Wild burros are protected animals and they have the right of way on the Oatman streets.  This can lead to some frustrating moments, because if a stubborn burro refuses to move, it can mean playing the waiting game for quite a spell before rolling the car on down the road. Wild burros do kick and bite, but for the most part they are quite docile. Even so, standing near the hind quarters of a wild burro is not advisable by any means, because these animals are powerful enough to kick a victim into next Tuesday! Wild burros have been known to grab onto shirt collars, sleeves and even ears, so it wise to keep a little distance as a buffer zone. 

It is illegal to feed wild animals in most western states, but in Oatman it is okay to feed the wild burros.  Official legal Burro food can be purchased at a few places along the old Route 66 main street area in Oatman, so feeding the burros is part of the entertainment venue.  In late winter and spring, there are plenty of baby burros around and deeding the baby burros is really good entertainment for children. On the flip-side, the burros in Oatman can be likened to food thieves at an endless buffet. This is because any human food items that a tourist may carry while touring the town, will surely be snatched by a hungry burro that is passing by! The wild burros even go as far as to gang up on people that carry food, so it is like dealing with a roving burro street gang!

Old ghost town restaurants, like the ones in Oatman, serve traditional Southwestern style tourist food.  Everything from sarsaparilla to chili dogs and ice cream can be found on the snack bar menus.  There are plenty of fun curios shopping opportunities in Oatman at the antique shops.  Oatman also has saloons, staged outlaw gun fights and there is even a place for kids to pan gold.

Oatman, Arizona is about 20 minutes south of Laughlin, Nevada. U.S. Highway 95 crosses the Colorado River in Laughlin and the road heads south through Bullhead City, Arizona to Oatman. Highway 95 continues on south to Lake Havasu City, which is another old Route 66 destination. When going south on Highway 95 to Oatman, the road to look for is called Boundary Cone Road and this scenic old Route 66 alignment heads straight uphill from the river to Oatman.

The Oatman Ghost Town is well worth visiting when staying in Laughlin or when touring old historic Route 66 in this region. Modern casino resort accommodations can be found in Laughlin and there is plenty to experience in that city too.  It is very easy for a planned one hour visit in Oatman to turn into an all day excursion, so be sure to allow plenty of extra time to explore this historic place!  Oatman is one of the most popular living ghost towns in the west and the intriguing history of this town will captivate visitors as much as the official welcoming committee, which just happens to be the local wild burros!


Author: wildwestdestinations

I worked as a chef in remote resorts and National Parks, which provided the time to explore western travel destinations. I have a BA Degree in Culinary Management with high honors and currently I am working on a Masters Degree in Adult Education. My food and travel blog writing began as a means to generate income during college and now photo journalism has become my lifestyle.

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