The Oatman Fire Department Project
In the Old West, from the Rocky Mountains on out to California, mining towns sprang to life wherever a rich strike was made and men could work wealth from the Earth. Today, sites and traces still exist all over the Western mining country, but almost all the old boom towns disappeared after the local ore played out.
Some of them were dismantled and moved on with the next rush, but most of these hastily-built wooden towns were destroyed by their great enemy - fire. Now the few surviving towns are rare relics of a daring age.
Oatman was born in the early 1900s, after rich deposits of gold were discovered in the rugged volcanic Black Mountains surrounding it in northwest Arizona. The boom times lasted through the Roaring Twenties, and attracted miners, merchants, bootleggers, and all the rest of the gold rush adventurers. They say the mines at one time supported a population of 10,000. Old photos show the hills around town crowded with miner's shacks and tent cabins.
Those days are long gone, but somehow the town has survived much as it was back then. Ancient, bent old men visit Oatman today, and marvel at how it looks just like it did when they passed through as young men on Route 66, back in the Thirties.
Major fires have occurred throughout the years, but, for almost a century now, Oatman firefighters have successfully protected and preserved the historic town for future generations.
In Oatman's earliest days, some of the merchants sponsored volunteer firefighters
The Oatman Volunteer Fire Department was organized in 1936. Their Seagrave engine now belongs to the Bullhead City Fire Department. In perfect trim and running condition, the engine is still used for parades and ceremonies.
I moved to Oatman in July, 1995. One of the first things I remember seeing was the volunteer firefighters, out in front of the firehouse on Main Street, refueling their rig out of 5-gallon gas cans as wild burros wandered by. In the years since, I've photographed and videotaped the department at work, at structure fires, road wrecks, backcountry search and rescue, and wildland fires.
December 2, 1999, 1:30 a.m. Firemen move in on a Main Street restaurant full of fire
November 5, 2000, 3:30 a.m. The department's big new engine takes in its first fire - the Mission Inn restaurant, fully involved. Heat melted the engine's taillight lenses
June 2002, Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona. Oatman's 4-wheel-drive, compressed-air foam wildland engine drafts water from the Colorado River to put out a brush fire. Firefighters worked the line in temperatures measured at up to 145°F.
In addition to shooting recent action, I've done research on the fires and firefighters of the past, collecting newspaper reports and photographs. One mysterious old photo, which appeared to be ruined, was captioned simply, "Oatman". Nobody here could make out what it was. But scanned and enlarged, what appeared to be stains turned out to be smoke and steam rising from ruins north of the present-day Oatman Hotel. I believe the picture was taken in the aftermath of Oatman's worst fire, in June 1921, when the St. Francis hotel burned and took the entire north half of town with it. Compared with a photo taken from the same spot before the fire, the extent of that disaster is obvious, and amazing.
But aside from major fires, the local newspapers of the time had little information about the Oatman Fire Department. Worse, many of the department's own records were lost or destroyed when the town was at its lowest economic ebb, in the '60s and '70s.
Over the last few years, I've collected enough good action footage and historical material to make a very interesting video on the OFD. I've collected what I can, but I'd like to collect as much as might be available, to make the record and the story as complete as possible.
So if you have any information on Oatman firefighting from the days of old, or know someone who might, I'd like to know about it. Personal stories, photographs, and photos of artifacts would all be very welcome. You can be sure the information will be put to good use. I think a lot of people will enjoy it.
You can contact me at email@example.com , or by mail at
P.O. Box 847
Oatman, AZ 86433
Thanks - Joe
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