Traveling in the West, there are plenty of places with history. Plenty of places that will rep old-west happenings of various repute - train robberies and wagon trails, battlefields and ghost towns, petroglyphs and ancient ruins. We’ve been to many of these places - Mesa Verde, Canyon Pintado, Santa Fe Trail, Rhyolite.
But this place - this place is something else.
I’ve never been to a place that had so much of this history all packed into one, small, area. One spot of ground that has seen drama and tragedy for more than 300 years. This place may be the most intense alignment of all these things that I have experienced - anywhere.
The History of Canyon Diablo
The geographical feature “Canyon Diablo” is a classic western canyon, cutting across a part of the Colorado Plateau, and is a tributary of the Little Colorado River. It’s a steep canyon, and formed an intimidating barrier to travelers headed west. The name of the place should have been a hint - “Canyon Diablo” was a name given to the canyon by the Spaniards - but the name was apparently based upon Native American superstitions that the canyon was haunted. Maybe they were right.
The first real stories you find about this place center around an incident in the 1870s, where a group of Navajo trapped a raiding band of Apaches in a cave on the banks of Canyon Diablo. They burned the Apaches in the cave - killing 42 of them - as reprisal for the raids. The “Apache Death Cave”, as it became known, is only the first of a series of crazy stories - all within about 5 miles of this desolate place.
The town of Canyon Diablo was initially settled in the 1880s, in support of the transcontinental railroad. In 1880, the railroad “ended” at Canyon Diablo - the last stop - while a bridge was constructed across the canyon. This town became very dangerous, very quickly. According the newspaper in Flagstaff, Canyon Diablo was “more dangerous than Tombstone”, and hosted 14 saloons, 10 casinos, 4 brothels, 1 grocery store, and no law enforcement. After some time, it was felt that the town needed some law - and 6 town marshals would all die in the line of duty - the longest lasting one month. A pretty spectacular train robbery also happened at Canyon Diablo - making off with over $100,000 in currency, 2,500 silver dollars and $40,000 in gold coins - all of that in 1880’s dollars (a little over $3 million in current dollars - not counting any appreciation in gold itself), most of which was never recovered. For a short time, the town had 2,000 residents - but after the bridge was completed, the town died almost as quickly as it had been established. Leaving only the Volz trading post (first image in this piece) and train station behind. But history - and misfortune - weren’t done with Canyon Diablo yet.
Visiting Canyon Diablo
I’ll confess that we didn’t know anything about Canyon Diablo when we first “discovered” it. Our atlas listed it, with the ever intriguing words “ruins” next to it. As we headed into the desert on a road that I wouldn’t recommend you take your rental car on, we gazed across the wide-open desert, searching for signs of… something. After a few miles of “putting the tires on the high places”, we saw trains - great, long, hurtling trains, racing across that transcontinental railroad - they don’t have to slow down for the new bridge.
As we approached the tracks, a train had stopped on a siding, blocking the “road” as it was shown in our map. So we eased up to the bridge, and started looking around. The “new” bridge, built in 1946, is built right next to the original - the foundations of which are still visible. Then, we started to see the walls of what was the town of Canyon Diablo itself. The main thing still left standing is the Volz Trading Post and the cistern behind it. There is still a relatively clear path up to the ruins, which appear to follow the alignment of the original “main street” in town. Rusting cans and pails litter the desert here, scattered everywhere with random chunks of lumber and wire. Things hang around for a long time in the the desert.
The History of Two Guns
Approximately 4 miles upstream of the Canyon Diablo bridge was the site of the aforementioned Apache Death Cave - and, coincidentally, a reasonably moderate place to cross the canyon for settlers and their wagons.
This location wasn’t lacking for outlaw history either - Billy the Kid and his gang hid here in the winter of 1879, Eventually the wagon trail became the “Santa Fe Highway”, and a road bridge was built at the crossing in 1914 - and in a few years, the road was named part of the original Route 66. In 1922 a couple purchased land at this spot, and built a store, restaurant, and service station - and the history of Canyon Diablo got a bit more interesting. In 1925, a gentleman going by the name of “Chief Crazy Thunder” (actual name Harry Miller) decided to capitalize on the road and tourists, and built a zoo - “one of every animal that lives in Arizona” - including snakes and mountain lions. He also built a gift shop on top of the Apache Death Cave… and decided to sell the remains - skulls, bones, and the like - as souvenirs.
You read that right - he sold the skulls from the Apache Death Cave as souvenirs.
The store burned in 1929.
The alignment of the road changed in 1934, and a new service station was built, but personal tragedies stalked the folks that lived there - leading to the property being bought, sold, and abandoned several times into the 1960s.
In the 1960s, a new service station, rv resort, and campground were built - and it looked like the curse of Two Guns might just be over. Interstate 40 was built, and a dedicated exit ramp was built right to the campground. Things seemed to be going well, until a huge fire consumed virtually all of the town in 1971.
That was the end of Two Guns, deserted ever since.
Visiting Two Guns
It’s not often you get to visit two ghost towns within 5 miles of each other. I’ve traveled quite a bit in the southwest, and every time I have a chance to explore a piece of old Route 66, I do. Maybe it’s a bit of that old romanticism, the “mother road” and such. While much of old Route 66 is romantic, I’ll say that Two Guns isn’t one of those places. Maybe it’s the graffiti, maybe it’s the scale of the ruins - but this place felt unsettling, even before we knew the history of it.
The ruins are rambling - on both sides of the canyon, up and down stream for probably a quarter of a mile - and stretching from the 1900s until the 1970s. The original Route 66 bridge is still standing, accessible. We drove across it (perhaps ill-advised), as we explored. In the older part of town, the buildings on top of the Death Cave were built to look like the ruins at Mesa Verde and other cliff dwellings of the southwest. On the other side of the canyon, the ruins of the original fuel station and zoo still stand - “MOUNTAIN LIONS” painted across the facade of the one building, still facing the old highway.
The newer parts of the ruins were the creepiest to me, feeling like a set-piece from a dystopian movie. There is an abandoned in-ground pool, completely covered in graffiti, and its pool/shower house. The view from the pool must have been nice, once upon a time - soaking up the desert sun, the snow-capped top of Humphrey’s Peak rising far off in the distance.
We drove around carefully - nail-studded wood, trash, jagged metal, and…. RV hookups?… littered the scrub brush, and it definitely wasn’t the kind of place that I would have wanted to have car trouble. It felt like the kind of place where something - or someone - might step out of the ruins at any moment.
The last remnant of the campground check-in building is a disembodied roof that reads “KAMP”, standing on a pile of rubble. The taggers have hit it too, at least as far up as they dared to reach without climbing on it.
The fire that hit this place in the 70s must have been incredible. We found melted glass around the ruins (kids that got to put their bottles in fires will know what I mean), and what must have been some of the animal “cages” at the zoo still had chicken wire around them - apparently those cages didn’t hold the mountain lions.
So there you have it. The story of Canyon Diablo and Two Guns, Arizona. I don’t tend to buy into stories about “cursed” places, but the few times I’ve considered it have been in the southwest.
After visiting this place, I may have to revise my opinion on “cursed earth.”