The bones of a country

And then the tall trees began, and the cars spouted steam and labored up the slopes. And there was Flagstaff, and that was the top of it all. Down from Flagstaff over the great plateaus … The sun drained the dry rocky country, and ahead were jagged broken peaks, the western wall of Arizona.
John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath, 1939, Chapter 18

Leaving Winslow, Arizona, we follow the same path described by Steinbeck, past Flagstaff and Williams (the gateway to the Grand Canyon), on to Seligman. Route 66 has roughly paralleled I-40 since Oklahoma and finally it veers north away from the interstate. We will travel all the way to the California border on the longest unbroken original stretch of the Mother Road.

“Manifest destiny” was the belief in the late 1800s that Americans were destined to settle across the continent. The federal government provided a powerful incentive to fulfil that destiny through the passage of the 1872 Mining Law.

The law allowed miners to make claims on federal land for just a few dollars and extract ore with no royalties paid to the US Treasury. After passage of the Mining Law, small mining towns popped up throughout the west. {{image2-A:R-w:300}}

The biggest mining town in this part of Arizona was Oatman, named in honour of Olive Oatman, a young girl who was taken captive by a native American tribe, traded to the Mohave people who adopted her as a daughter, and later returned to the white world.

In 1863, gold was discovered at Camp Mohave near the Colorado River. Ultimately, Mohave County would become the second highest gold-producing county in Arizona.

Initially, mining occurred at a slow pace, due to an uprising among the Hualapai tribe in 1866 and the 1880s discovery of gold 40 kilometres to the north east. Around the turn of the century several highly productive mines were opened and in 1909 the town of Oatman was established to service the prospering local mines.

During World War I, Oatman was the largest gold-producing camp in the United States. But as mine depths passed 305m, the gold and silver content of some of the ores decreased. In 1924, a number of major ore bodies became exhausted. By then, the mining district had produced more than $34 million worth of gold, more than $2 billion at today’s gold market value. {{image3-A:L-w:300}}

The final blow to the district occurred during World War II, when the government issued Limitation Order No. 208, closing gold mines. The purpose was to focus the country’s mining on copper, zinc and other strategic metals necessary for the war effort.

But there’s still gold in “them thar hills” around Oatman, and since WWII there have been sporadic attempts to mine the precious metal.

Oatman was able to cater to Route 66 travellers until 1953, when a new route between Kingman and Needles was built. But Oatman, like its namesake, survived.

Today the burgeoning worldwide interest in historic Route 66 brings tourists from near and far, many to see the wild burros (donkeys) that roam the streets, the descendants of the original miners’ burros that were set free when the mining stopped.
Continuing west out of Oatman, we drive over Sitgreaves Pass and down on to the Colorado River, the border between Arizona and California.

Looking back at the mountains from whence we just came, we can almost hear Tom Joad (from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath) say: “Never seen such tough mountains … This here’s the bones of a country.” 

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