Exploring The Gold Camps Of Oatman
Once again, it started with some little dirt roads. On the way home from the SEMA show several years ago, a missed turn and the resulting good fortune put us on a section of old Route 66 through Oatman, Arizona. We took a fascinating drive on this narrow, sinuous, and history-soaked section of crumbling blacktop. Cresting the southern end of the Black Mountains on Sitgreaves Pass just as the sun slid behind the mountains west of the Colorado River, we witnessed the incredibly rugged country bathed in shades of pink and purple. But the most intriguing aspect of the drive wasn't the sundown, however sublime, or the hard-surfaced road, no matter how historic. Our attention and imagination were drawn to the dozens of little dirt roads disappearing over every hill and vanishing down every little dry wash. Where did they all lead?
We made it back to the Oatman area this past December for a day of exploration. Oatman is in northwest Arizona between Kingman and Bullhead City/Laughlin. The primary area we intended to explore is centered on this historic mining town and cradled between the Colorado River and two wilderness areas. With Oatman sitting on the west slope of the Black Mountains at around 2,700 feet, we anticipated enough warmth for backcountry camping even toward the end of the year. We arrived in late afternoon and the sun was already sinking behind one of the many volcanic outcroppings that dominate the skyline.
As the temperature dropped, we looked for a suitable camping site, preferably one with easy access to some firewood. The wash bottoms offered the only terrain suitable for setting a tent and we lucked into some dead wood from a snag left there from the last flash flood. After a pleasant evening around the fire, we retired to our tent. Ten minutes later, the tent was being buffeted by strong winds that lasted all night. So much for desert warmth in December -- or peaceful sleep.
The wind was still howling the next morning (but no dew on the tent!) when we left the wash. We headed north toward some mine tailings we could see in the distance. We were soon poking around the remains of the Moss Mine. Most historians credit John Moss with making the earliest discovery of recoverable gold in the Oatman area in the early 1860s. There are reports that $200,000 worth of gold came out of his initial 10x10x10-foot hole. The claim changed hands and more development capital was sunk into the operation, but the mine never again produced anything close to the original bonanza. The ruins include the foundation for a large mill, a large stone building that appears to have been some kind of company headquarters or store, a large steel head frame, and a plethora of smaller wreckage, adits, and tailing piles.
In spite of the initial success of the Moss Mine and the discovery of similar veins in the surrounding countryside, there wasn't much mineral development in the vicinity for the next thirty years. A lack of rich ore discoveries was certainly the primary reason for this mining hiatus. But the lack of water in this parched land and the long haul distances to process ore also made economic viability difficult.