Built over an Indian mass grave, this Route 66 roadside attraction was cursed from the start. Trading Posts, gas stations, restaurants, a campground and even a zoo all failed to break the curse of Devil Canyon.
Welcome to Two Guns, AZ.
Come see the mountain lions at our cliff side zoo…
…or check out the ruins of an old cabin built over an Apache death cave, where a man was murdered in cold blood over a land dispute.
This here was the real Wild West where wicked white men came to make their fortunes but were always cursed to fail…
…and where a roadside service station attempts to atone for a history of sin by becoming a church.
Take any exit along former Route 66 in Arizona and you’re bound to run into something forsaken and crumbling. The assortment of derelict stone buildings found east of Flagstaff are a perfect example. As indicated by the sign at Exit 230, they comprise the town of Two Guns — or at least they did. More than once, in fact.
It all started after the bridge that crosses Canyon Diablo was installed in the mid-1910s. Two homesteaders, Earl and Louise Cundiff, moved there in the 1920s and bought out a local prospector who had set up shop along the National Old Trails Highway. The name Two Guns came from a somewhat eccentric character named Harry “Indian” Miller, a talented huckster who falsely claimed to be a full-blooded Apache named Chief Crazy Thunder.
A partner of sorts with Earl Cundiff, Miller signed a lease to do business on the property and assembled a lengthy stone building he dubbed Fort Two Guns. When Cundiff petitioned to open a post office, the name Two Guns was officially rejected in favor of “Canyon Lodge,” but Two Guns would prove to be the name that would endure. Despite being temporarily stuck with a rather lackluster name, the town went on to achieve years of popularity as a roadside attraction, and its success was due in large part to the efforts of Indian Miller.
I was surprised and pleased to find almost no graffiti on any of the older stone ruins, not sure that would be the case if they were located in California.
I had originally allotted only 45 minutes to explore Two Guns but after seeing how extensive the ruins were and how incredible the place was, I immediately nixed some of the other stops I had planned on going to later that day and ended up staying four more hours which enabled me to catch it in various states of light.
In 1914 Arizona State Engineer Lamar Cobb selected and surveyed the site for a bridge over the canyon and purchased plans and specifications for a long-span concrete arch from the Topeka Bridge & Iron Company of Kansas for $500. The Canyon Diablo bridge featured a 16-foot-wide roadway that cantilevered over the arch’s spandrels on both sides. Late in 1914 the state engineer’s office rewarded the construction contract to the lowest bidder, Thomas Maddock of Williams, Arizona, for $9,000. Using concrete and reinforcing steel supplied by the state, Maddock built the Canyon Diablo Bridge that winter. It was opened to traffic on March 17, 1915.
The Canyon Diablo Bridge and the adjacent roadway carried mainline traffic (including Route 66) until the highway was rerouted in the 1930s. There were no warning signs anywhere along the bridge, so I walked across it first and then later drove across it after seeing other people do it safely.
The dirt roads that wind there way through Two Guns are surrounded by numerous barbed wire fences that zig zag throughout property. If there were ever any ‘No Trespassing’ signs on them, none could be found while I was there.
The cursed ruins built over the Apache Death Cave and scene of a cold blooded murder. The terms and broad wording of Miller’s ten-year lease had always been a source of tension between him and Earl Cundiff, and that tension would finally snap on March 3,1926. During a heated dispute over the lease, Miller shot Cundiff in cold blood. For unknown reasons, Miller was acquitted at the trial.
In 1878, a group of Apache raiders attacked a Navajo encampment near the Little Colorado river. Almost every Navajo man, woman, and child was killed in the raid. When the Apache finished looting the encampment, only three girls remained and they were swiftly taken prisoner by the Apache. When the Navajo leaders got word of this attack, they sent out 25 men to avenge the fallen encampment. However their efforts failed and the trails went cold, disappearing into the river and volcanic cinder. The scouts had found nothing until they were startled by a blast of hot air that was coming from underneath the ground. Upon further investigation, the scouts discovered that the hot air was coming from an Apache campfire in an underground cavern beneath them, large enough to house both the Apache raiding party and their horses.
The scouts returned with news of their discovery, and the Navajo came back with a vengeance. After they killed two unsuspecting watchmen at the mouth of the cave, they gathered up the dry sagebrush and driftwood on the canyon floor and started a fire at the entrance. Now aware of the attack as smoke billowed into their hideaway, the Apache slit the throats of their horses and used what was left of their water to put out the flames, doing their best to seal off the entrance with corpses of their former mounts. It wasn’t long until smoke and the sound of the Apache singing their death songs filled the air. When the songs faded and the smoke cleared, the Navajo broke through the charred horse-corpse barrier. They retrieved their goods, and stripped off the valuables of the 42 Apaches that suffocated inside of the cave. From that point on, no Apache has used the cave for any reason. Apaches would never again raid the Navajo people. Local tribes would warn would-be pioneers about the cave, saying that the land around it was cursed, but it was often passed off as silly superstition by the settlers. The cave is still accessible via a steep, collapsed trail but since I wasn’t aware of it while I was there, I didn’t get a chance to explore it. Two cave explorers on a recent expedition have claimed that the tunnels are up to 7 miles long.
A murder took place in here.
The story of the cave was interesting in its own right, but Miller believed that the tale needed something… more. He cleaned up the remaining bones he found in the cave, built fake ruins, and repurposed the tomb into a “cave dwelling.”
In a macabre commercial stroke of genius, he saved the skulls of the ill-fated Apache and sold them as souvenirs. In order to make the cave a bit more tourist-friendly, he also strung up some electric lighting, threw in a soda stand, and renamed the death cave the “Mystery Cave.”
It was around this time that people say the curse of Two Guns began.
For reasons unknown, the Cundiffs decided to lease their store to a pair of drifters who subsequently disappeared in the middle of the night with armloads of merchandise.
Of course, things didn’t end there. Though Miller was inexplicably acquitted of the murder, he went on to suffer his own misfortune. On two separate occasions, he was clawed nearly to death by a mountain lion and a lynx, both residents of his own zoo.
He was also bitten on the finger by a Gila monster he kept on display, suffering an infection that swelled his entire arm. Plus, reports indicate Miller lost his daughter around this time in a car wreck, as well as an associate who died under mysterious circumstances.
Not only that, but Miller got himself entailed in a legal battle with Earl Cundiff’s widow over property rights. He lost, and by 1930, further circumstances forced Miller to pack up and leave.
Even without Miller, Two Guns and its inhabitants continued to suffer. Route 66 was rerouted to the opposite canyon, taking its travelers and their money with it.
Louise Cundiff and her new husband, Phillip Hersch, had to rebuild everything in Two Guns, including the zoo, on the opposite canyon just to keep the town going. Though still visible from Interstate 40 with its large “Mountain Lions” sign, the new zoo was shut down soon after it opened. It was then sold in 1950 along with the rest of the property.
Two Guns then fell under the hands of a series of lessees over the next few years, none of whom appeared to have much more luck keeping the place open. In the 1960s, the site was sold once again to Ben Dreher, an entrepreneur who appeared to be immune to the Two Guns’ curse.
Dreher was successful in revitalizing Two Guns by building a new motel, restaurant, gift shop, tavern and service station, as well as instituting a new post office, establishing a county chamber of commerce and reopening the zoo with a reptile exhibit. He cut tourist trails to the old ruins and began exploring the cave in the hope he could someday open a cavern attraction, as well. Finally, it seemed, the curse had been lifted, then, in 1971, Dreher’s entire complex burned in an explosive inferno. That was to be the last time Two Guns would ever be inhabited.
Time to head back over the bridge to the ‘newer’ section of Two Guns. This section appears to look old but it’s actually part of the most recent history of Two Guns that took place between 1960-1971.
Acid Boys Biscuits
Kid Fresh after his shower.
If These Walls Could Talk
Bruce Lee Love
Room With A View
No Diving Allowed
I didn’t even notice the pool until a SK8R dude pulled up in a jeep, threw out the debris in it and started skating.
The newest abandoned building is this old Shell station located right off I-40.
…not your head. I’m definitely coming back here with a better camera and gear to get down into the Apache Death Cave.
Protecting and preserving historic, sacred, and sensitive sites should be practiced by all. Locations, directions, and names to some of the places found on this site are not listed, please don’t ask for them. Tread lightly, leave no trace and always respect the wonder that surrounds you.