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Canyon Diablo

Anyone who says Tombstone was the roughest town in Arizona hasn't heard of Canyon Diablo. More men were supposedly killed in Canyon Diablo in one year than in Dodge City, Abilene, and Tombstone combined. Legend has it you couldn't walk a block without crossing the scene of a crime.

The town's name, translated appropriately to "Devil's Canyon," comes from the gorge on which it was built. As the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad snaked west toward California, it was this gorge that created an impasse, necessitating the

construction of a bridge. Sections of the bridge were assembled off-site and shipped to builders at the canyon, but when someone misread the plans, the bridge came up short, halting construction. The delay, exacerbated by financial problems, left the rail workers sitting on their hands, and the shack town of Canyon Diablo was born.

The impromptu settlement held only 2,000 people, less than that of a Phoenix high school, but comprised 14 saloons, 10 gambling halls, four brothels and two dance halls, which may as well have been brothels. Inhabitants had their choice of, among others, the Last Drink, the Road to Ruin, and the Cootchy-Klatch. Together with a couple of places to get food and dry goods, the mile-long row of mostly tin and canvas buildings formed the only avenue in town: Hell Street.

Crime went unchecked. Robberies occurred hourly. It was fully expected that any train or stagecoach passing through the area would be knocked off. One man got himself hanged when he held up a wagon carrying the workers' payroll. Murder was almost as common. Residents were as likely to get shot in the street as they were to get their boots dusty. The town's graveyard collected 35 bodies, although that doesn't account for the many men who were buried where they bled.

God help the man who tried to clean things up. Wearing a badge in Canyon Diablo was like painting a bull's-eye on your chest. The first man to do so pinned on a star at 3:00 and lay dead by 8:00. The second lasted only two weeks. The third survived three weeks before being gunned down and the fourth, only six days. The record for any marshal to survive was one month, but he had to shoot so many men to last that long that the hospital in Winslow had to stop accepting the victims. In all, seven lawmen were bumped off in less than two years.

Work on the bridge eventually resumed after a seven-month delay. It took a year to complete, allowing the first train to cross the canyon on July 1, 1882. And no longer did it take the locomotive to vanish over the horizon than it did for Canyon Diablo to dry up and blow away. The hired hands moved on, and with them went the prostitutes and the barmen. A shovelful of coal and everybody was gone.

Canyon Diablo at its peak lasted just 19 months. It lingered as a flag stop between Winslow and Flagstaff for many years, but very little remains today. At last report, only a single grave marker denotes the existence of the cemetery. It's said to be that of Herman Wolf, the only man to have died there peacefully, although he passed away in 1899 after Canyon Diablo had fizzled out. The largest ruins are that of a trading post once run by Fred Volz, a Navajo Indian who lived there from 1886 to 1910. But, again, this was well after the town's heyday. Actually, the only remnants from the Canyon Diablo of bloodshed and debauchery are the disused masonry stanchions from the original bridge that started it all. They poke up from the base of the canyon, some 255 feet below the bridge's contemporary replacement.

There were talks a few years ago of restoring the town and creating a Tombstone-like attraction, but the only modern additions to be found are a few abandoned vehicles rusting nearby. If old stanchions and trading posts are your thing, though, you can take Interstate 40 east of Flagstaff and head north up the path from Exit 230. Just be sure you do it in a 4x4.

A Canyon Diablo Tongue Lashing

Even though the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad had completed its crossing of Canyon Diablo in 1882 and resumed its steam-powered push west, travelers continued their much slower crawl into the new territory via wagon, seeking land on which to settle or fortunes on which to retire. The road they followed passed through the same terrain as the rail line near Two Guns, east of Flagstaff, but travelers were forced to cut northward at the canyon, where the gorge dissolved into flatland and allowed passage to the other side.

The crossing was located near the future site of Leupp, about 25 miles northwest of Winslow. This made the closest patch of civilization at that time the town of Canyon Diablo, a small settlement that had been notorious for rampant and violent crime. It was a region in which holdups were unexceptional. Remote and sparse with traffic, the trail made for a perilous journey.

In 1888, one unfortunate soul seeking life beyond the chasm found out just how dangerous the route could be. Discovered abandoned just short of the crossing, the lone traveler had evidently been ambushed by highwaymen. The contents of his wagon were strewn about the ground and his animals either stolen or let loose. From the wagon's tongue, which had been propped vertically by the yoke, hung the man himself. He had been strung up from his own conveyance, left to swing from a makeshift gibbet, alone in the desert.

The traveler, whose identity officials were unable to determine, was buried on-site. His assailants were never discovered. Neither was the reason they executed their victim in such an awkward and troublesome manner, when a simple bullet would have done just as well. Exactly what transpired there at the end of the canyon remains a unknown. It's a Wild West murder mystery that has never been solved.

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