It is now less than a week to go until the Frontierado Holiday coming up this Friday August 6th. Balladeer’s Blog will be making a few more seasonal posts between now and then.

railroad over canyon diabloCANYON DIABLO: THE MOST LAWLESS TOWN OF THE OLD WEST – In 1880 construction crews for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad reached the wide chasm called Canyon Diablo in what is now Coconino County, Arizona. Construction had to pause for several months when the crews discovered that the wrong size bridge had been manufactured and would not reach all the way across Canyon Diablo.

canyon diabloWhile waiting for new bridge materials to be manufactured and shipped to the site, workers stayed in the area doing stonemasonry, surveying, cutting and preparing railroad ties and preparing the grade & bed. A quick Hell On Wheels town sprouted called Canyon Diablo, named after the canyon. Unlike most such towns this one lasted for decades, from 1880 into the 20th Century but was at its peak for just a few years in the 1880s.

This wasn’t just another of the many Hell On Wheels towns that sprang up along all railroads under construction in the 1800s west. Canyon Diablo earned a reputation as the deadliest and most lawless town in the old west. Law enforcement officers of any kind were not welcome in the place and so, many drifters, criminals and fugitives paraded in and out of the town, sometimes even taking up residence there. The nearest officers of the law were located 100 miles away.

canyon diablo bridge 1882Canyon Diablo is not a household name like Dodge City, Tombstone, Deadwood, Silver City or others because not only law enforcement, but anything resembling newspapers, churches or schools or any other of the usual fixtures of civilization failed to survive there.

For that same reason, few details survive about the gunfights, knife fights and ambushes which filled the graves in the town’s nearby Boot Hill Cemetery. There was simply no one on hand to chronicle events in the town. And that’s exactly how the violent and larcenous denizens liked it. 

Boozing, gambling, prostitution and shelter for fugitives from the law were the figurative economic base of Canyon Diablo. According to one historian “Murder on the street was common. Holdups were nearly hourly occurrences, newcomers being slugged on mere suspicion that they carried valuables.”

Canyon Diablo grew to a population of just over 2,000 people in the 1880s and believe it or not a regular stage coach line ran between Flagstaff, AZ and this wild and violent town. Alcohol, food, weaponry, ammunition, payrolls and bankrolls for the casinos were among the supplies often brought into Canyon Diablo. Trade must have been lucrative enough, because the stage coach line stayed open for years despite periodic armed hold-ups.

canyon diablo picThe saloons, brothels and gambling halls stayed open literally 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Much of the town consisted of tents, shotgun shacks and ramshackle homes for residents, railroad workers or other migrant laborers, as well as a few hotels. The main street of Canyon Diablo, called Hell Street (I’m serious), was lined on both sides with businesses. At its height Hell Street alone was home to 14 saloons, 10 gambling halls, 4 brothels, 2 dance halls, a grocery store, a dry goods store, three restaurants and a Chinese diner counter run by a man named Ching Wong.

As time rolled on, the town’s nearby railway station was used for the frequent unloading of freight-trains. No passenger train service was ever available to or from the deadly burg for obvious reasons. Over the years assorted hombres on the lam would sneak aboard the train cars and jump off as the train approached Canyon Diablo.

In the End-of-the-Tracks neighborhood, wagon crews regularly picked up shipments of all manner of merchandise plus mining machinery and sawmill equipment to carry them to other destinations that had no rail connections. Near the depot were located the section crew’s house, stock pens, a water tank (pumped out of the canyon’s depth at that time), freight docks and warehouses.

It got so merchants could never depend on an unloaded shipment of goods reaching them intact. Even sawmill operators lost or had machinery and replacement parts damaged beyond use while en route. The freighters themselves were also robbed on spec. On numerous occasions, enraged because they found nothing spendable, the outlaws burned the freighter’s wagons.    

Occasional attempts were made by the businessmen who used the depot to establish lawmen in the wild town. Canyon Diablo’s first sheriff took up his duties one day at 3:00PM but was dead 5 hours later. Five more scattered attempts were made at having officers of the law in the town but all attempts ended in the deaths of the lawmen with the longest lasting badge wearer surviving for just 30 days. 

Even the U.S. Army refused to impose order on Canyon Diablo when they were asked. No wonder the town was sometimes a hiding place even for off-the-reservation Native Americans passing through the area.

As ever, enough money could buy you anything, and lumber magnate E.E. Ayers was the only businessman rich enough to get the government to have troops escort his personal shipments. But not even those all of the time.

A surviving quote about the men of Canyon Diablo says “They were footloose drifters in hard luck who came west looking for a place to settle. Killers and badly wanted criminals composed the bulk of their hardened numbers.”

As for the women in town, among the few who gained word of mouth renown were the two most successful brothel Madams, Clabberfoot Annie and Bullshit Mary (yes, really). In the legendary “War of the Whores” these two ladies ran competing bordellos which faced each other on opposite sides of Hell Street. Their rivalry was legendary, often resulting in exchanges of gunfire and/or all-out catfights in the street.    

hermann wolf graveThe dozens of crosses and tombstones above the graves in the town’s version of Boot Hill are all lost to the passage of time except for that of Hermann Wolf. He was a merchant in Canyon Diablo for decades and was supposedly the only person buried in the cemetery to die peacefully. Wolf’s death came in 1899.

Several unmarked graves were also found scattered on both sides of the railroad tracks leading to the town and even more were discovered along the eastern rim of the canyon itself.

By 1903 Canyon Diablo, far past its best days, was also home to a Navajo trading post. On April 8th, 1905 the town’s only gunfight with verifiable details took place and is widely known simply as the Canyon Diablo Shootout.

On April 7th, the previous night, two outlaws named John Shaw and William Evans robbed hundreds of dollars from poker players at the Wigwam Saloon in Winslow, AZ. (It’s such a fine sight to see.) They were traced to Canyon Diablo the next day by Sheriff Chet Houck and his deputy, Pete Pemberton.

The pair of lawmen approached the outlaws on Hell Street near sundown and told them to prepare to be searched. Shaw and Evans refused and drew their guns. When all the gunplay was over and both sides had exhausted their bullets, Shaw lay dead and Evans was critically wounded. The latter would survive and was sentenced to 9 years in Yuma Territorial Prison.   

John Shaw was buried in nearby Boot Hill Cemetery, where, on the early morning of April 10th, 1905 some hard-partying cowboys from the storied Aztec Land & Cattle Company dug up his coffin. They poured some whiskey down the dead man’s throat from one of their bottles, posed for pictures (Taken with a Kodak camera!) then reburied Shaw with the remainder of the bottle he had “drunk” from.

Within a few more years the Canyon Diablo area had completed its lapse into a ghost town, leaving behind the shells of buildings and countless never to be told stories of true crime. +++






Filed under FRONTIERADO, Neglected History


  1. Such an historic place to see.

  2. What an astonishing place and a pretty large population!

  3. Perfect story for a movie. It looks amazing and i looks like a wonderful place to visit. Great read

  4. Kevin Arez

    Canyon Diablo sounds like any Democrat-run city or state now. But with many more rapes.

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  6. Cycstorm

    If those old ruins of buildings could talk!

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