Bloody ghost town could be rebuilt to attract tourists
By Mark Shaffer
The Arizona Republic

February 18th, 2001

When a train bridge finally was erected over 300-foot-deep Canyon Diablo, the small, unsavory settlement dried up.

The Navajo Nation is trying to develop a tourist attraction at the site of the ghost town of Canyon Diablo, once one of the wildest towns in the West.CANYON DIABLO - The small town of 14 saloons and four houses of ill repute near the rim of this imposing chasm between Flagstaff and Winslow really lasted only two years during the 1880s as engineers figured out a way to complete a railroad bridge across the canyon.

But during that time, Canyon Diablo developed a well-deserved reputation as being the wildest place the Wild West had ever seen.

Now, the Navajo Nation is steadily moving ahead with plans to turn the ghost town, where seven sheriffs were killed in less than two years, into the Tombstone of northern Arizona.

The tribe's Division of Economic Development has sanctioned and started funneling money into a Canyon Diablo restoration project. Tribal planners are debating whether it would be more successful as a tribal park or being operated as a non-profit corporation, said Gerald Knowles, a Santa Fe author and member of the Canyon Diablo ad hoc steering committee.

Hopes are high for the town being a tourist attraction because it is only four miles north of Interstate 40, the main thoroughfare from the east for Grand Canyon visitors, and is near Meteor Crater, which attracts more than 300,000 visitors annually.

As it stands now, only one large rock wall remains of an old trading post, a viaduct, a cistern and a couple of other small buildings, all built after the town's heyday in the early 1880s.

"It's going to take a lot of money," said Clarence Gorman, assistant director of Navajo Tribal Parks. "But there's also a potentially big upside to this venture."

Knowles figures it will take about $2 million to bring back the town to its unsavory best. But exactly what that looks like, nobody knows, because no one has been able to find a picture of the original town, where about 2,000 scoundrels once lived, Knowles said.

But Knowles said the town's main thoroughfare, Hell Street, more than likely resembled the set of High Plains Drifter and "we'll go that route unless we can find some pictures of the place."

Photos may be lacking, but Canyon Diablo's bloody past has been duly recorded on paper by historians.

As it turned out, it was a lethal combination to have a town built at the end of a railroad line near the edge of a 300-foot canyon, which separated it from the territorial seat of Yavapai County government 130 miles away in Prescott.

One sandstone grave marker with a simple cross is all that could be found of a crowded boothill cemetery.
Holdups were an hourly occurrence, murder nearly daily. A boothill cemetery, now unmarked and unrecognizable, quickly filled with 35 corpses, and other bodies were scattered in shallow graves throughout the area. A tour of the area by reporters last week turned up a solitary sandstone grave marker with a simple cross, which had fallen to the ground years ago.

"For the brief span of its vicious life," wrote historian Gladwell Richardson, who was raised in the area, "more famous places like Abilene, Virginia City and Tombstone could not hold a candle to the evil of this end-of-the-railroad's depravity."

Seven sheriffs made their way to Canyon Diablo, and all of them bit the dust within a month, including one who was gunned down five hours after pinning on his badge.

Finally, Yavapai County tired of sending law officers to their death, and Flagstaff businessmen petitioned Territorial Gov. Frederick A. Tittle to request that U.S. Army regulars be sent to Canyon Diablo. The troops were en route when the railroad bridge finally was completed, and the town quickly dried up and blew away.

The danger in town was hardly the only problem in the Canyon Diablo area.

Billy the Kid used the canyon to stash cattle he and his gang stole in New Mexico. The canyon also was a regular battlefield between Whites and Apaches, and Apaches and Navajos. One of the last battles of the Indian Wars happened south of Canyon Diablo at Big Dry Wash in 1882 when more than 50 Apaches were killed by the U.S. Cavalry and Apache scouts.

Four years before that, more than 40 Apache raiders who had been pillaging Navajo settlements were trapped in a cave within the canyon by Navajos and asphyxiated after huge fires were started at the cave's entrance.

In other words, Canyon Diablo should be one rip-roaring tourist attraction, Knowles said, adding that in addition to the tribe, Wells Fargo and Coconino County had expressed considerable interest in the project.

"When you have history like this, people are going to want to come and find out more about it," Knowles said.

A rock wall is about all that's left standing in Canyon DiabloA rock wall is about all that's left standing in Canyon Diablo, where an estimated 2,000 scoundrels once lived, terrorizing each other and law enforcement officers.


Two Guns and Canyon Diablo Page