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Gold-seekers keep at it in a desert without it : Prospects are nil for treasure-hunters who flock to an Arizona town. But a last-ditch mining effort fuels hopes.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s a gold rush for the plaid pants set, Winnebago wanderers figuring it’s time to get good and rich. They prowl the wooden sidewalks of old Oatman--a nugget-sized gold town that howled early this century--clutching $3 panning kits and asking directions to the mother lode.

The locals snicker under their whiskers and tell the God’s truth: You won’t find enough to pay your way home.

But they still come.

“We get up to 50 questions a day about gold in here,” says Vas Naikel, cook and manager at Cactus Joe’s Cantina. “People want to know where’s the best place to pan. We tell them you can’t pan where there isn’t any water. We got one wash that runs two months a year and that’s it. But most need to find out for themselves.”

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Gold has always been a hot topic in northwest Arizona. The current fever--well, call it a mild temperature elevation--started last December when Addwest Minerals Inc. began production at the old Gold Road Mine, 2 1/2 miles northeast of town.

It’s a serious effort to retrieve what company executives believe is at least 160,000 ounces of gold beneath the Black Mountains.

Addwest’s venture, which employs more than 90 workers, is small by comparison to gold mines in, say, Nevada. But it’s the largest such operation in Arizona, and word has spread.

So has the misconception that chunks of the yellow metal are lying about, winking under the sun. That has brought to Oatman a passel of tourists, retirees, vacationers and always-driving-Route 66 Kerouacs who can’t rest without knowing what’s beyond the next sunset.

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Most are getting on in years and have time to burn. Some bring grandchildren, promising a day of frontier-style prospecting. A few lost their trousers in Laughlin, Nev., 32 miles away, and are looking to spend a day in a place where all they’ll waste is time.

That’s the rock-hard truth about placer mining around Oatman. “I’d be surprised if anybody found anything using a gold pan,” says Bill Hawes, assistant state mine inspector. “I think the coarse, visible gold has all been gotten.”

But it’s still a tantalizing trip, because there really is plenty of gold here. Hawes says the area reminds him of the prolific gold belts being worked in Nevada, although the Oatman deposits are more spread out.

They’re also far, far underground. Addwest is digging at several levels, the deepest of which will eventually reach 750 feet, says Sonny Watson, the firm’s human resources manager.

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“You need to have pretty good resources to get this gold out,” Watson says. “Ma and Pa Kettle couldn’t do it.”

That’s dead-solid-straight talk, as far as prospector Preston (Red Dog) Haney is concerned. He works a claim outside town and says, “Even if you know where to look, it’s too damn much work. I tend bar instead.”

Back in the early part of the century, Oatman and Gold Road were red-blooded boom towns with more than 10,000 residents swinging picks in dozens of mines.

Production at the Gold Road vein, the same one Addwest is now working, began in 1901. In 30 years, that mine and others in the Oatman district yielded a total of $31 million in gold, according to state records.

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The work stopped in 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ended all mining not related to the war effort, leaving the region mostly quiet for decades. Not until the price of gold rose from $35 an ounce to its current level of about $400 did it become feasible to mine here again.

Such armchair history is well-known at Cactus Joe’s. Gold talk comes with the beer. So does the firm belief that the fabled mother lode is still out there.

“Nobody thinks it’s been found yet,” says Naikel, who doubles as captain of the town Fire Department. “We all have theories about where it is. Everyone tries to outguess the geologists.”

It helps that rocks sparkling with gold still turn up in Silver Creek Wash after a good rain, and every once in a while the hills echo with a loud dynamite boom, a sound that only reinforces the notion that you really can get lousy rich in a dusty, 146-post-office-box town.

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It’s enough to make a person cuckoo, not that anyone here would notice. The town is well-accustomed to odd goings on.

Take the 30 or so burros walking the streets. Seems that when the miners took off in ’42, they left their fuzzy-bottomed, ripe-smelling pack animals behind.

Now the descendants of those beasts ankle up and down the streets, sometimes nuzzling against a tourist’s Toyota, trying to get a handout.

“There’s a tradition that whoever spots the newest baby burro gets to name it,” says Kevin Enright, who sells jewelry and trinkets under a canvas top next to the antique fire engine. “The latest is named Shirley. Cute as a button.”

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From his spot on Main Street, Enright has a good view of the burros and the gold seekers. He’s developed a unique way of taking the temperature of Oatman’s metal fever.

“Until you see a bunch of wily old guys with filthy beards, there’s nothing to it,” says Enright. “I tell people they can make a lot more money hunting Arizona opals anyway.”

But it just doesn’t have the same allure. Who ever heard of an opal rush?


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