~ Flagstaff Day Trips ~
Two Guns & the Apache Death Cave: Exploring Arizona’s Cursed Past
I arrived at the ghost town of Two Guns just a few minutes before sundown. This, for some reason, seemed appropriate. At first, the forgotton city appears to be just another abandoned gas station area; there is a disused silo, a ruined convenience store, another small, gutted building of indeterminate purpose. But nearby are the almost century-old brick ruins that rest along the rim of Diablo Canyon, marking what might be the most cursed area in all of Arizona.
In 1969 a book called The View Over Atlantis popularized the New Age idea of “ley lines”, invisible strands of energy that criss-cross the globe. The intersection points of these lines are supposedly points of great magical importance – places where strange things happen. Neil Gaiman, in his Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel American Gods, proposed that the unusual energy at these ley lines convergences often influences people to build strange roadside attractions.
If such places exist, one of them almost certainly lies about 30 miles east of Flagstaff in the area of Diablo Canyon. It is here that the roadside attraction of Two Guns was erected in the 1920s, literally atop a massacre.
The Apache Death Cave
In the late 1870s, the Navajo and the Apache were essentially at war. Battles had taken place throughout the region, and on one particularly bloody day in 1878, Apache raiding parties attacked several communities of Navajo in the Melgosa Desert. In one area, they killed every Navajo except three girls, who they took hostage.
Three Navajo leaders and a band of 25 warriors rushed to the Apache’s anticipated escape route, hoping to set an ambush, but the raiders were nowhere to be seen. A pair of scouts sent out to search for them eventually stumbled upon a cave set into a crag of Diablo Canyon. Hiding inside were 42 Apache responsible for the slaughter.
The scouts led the band of Navajo back to the cave, where they shot two guards dead before beginning their vengeance in earnest.
They gathered mounds of dry wood and brush, dropped it into the cave’s entry passage, then lit it aflame. For hours the fire burned, smoke drifting from the cracks above, until it was finally allowed to die down a bit to determine the fate of those inside.
The Apache had slaughtered their horses, piling the dismembered bodies just inside the cave’s entrance to block as much smoke as possible.
They were still alive. A desperate Apache spokesman exited the cave to make an offer of goods and livestock in exchange for their lives. The Navajo leader, Natani, told them that if they sent out the three girls they had taken hostage, negotiations could continue. The only response was silence, and the Navajo then knew that the girls had already been killed.
Furious, they fired a hail of bullets into the cave and doubled the size of the brush fire. Smoke filled the cavern into the morning, until finally the death chants and choking gasps subsided. When the rocks finally cooled off around noon the next day, the bodies of the horses had been cooked and the bodies of all 42 Apache were found dead of asphyxiation, scattered throughout the cavern in a horrific scene. The corpses were left behind, and the cave was untouched for almost 50 years.
A Questionable Roadside Attraction
On top of the cave today rest the ruins of stone buildings that date to the 1920s. Looking to capitalize on the area’s troubled past, a man named Harry Miller and his wife decided to build a strange combination of a trading post, zoo and roadside attraction at the location of the massacre.
Their desecration of the site was complete. The skulls of the Apache raiders were removed from the cave and sold to tourists. The remaining bones of both people and horses were sold to a bone dealer (yes, those existed) in Winslow a few miles east. Native Americans from nearby reservations were hired to build a stone house directly over the cave. For a small fee, travelers could purchase Hopi bread goods, cheap knick-knacks and hear the story of the massacre.
Along the rim of the cave, the Millers constructed a long, stone building that they referred to as “Fort Two Guns”, which was turned into an indoor zoo and living quarters.
Trouble began almost immediately. Henry Miller became embroiled in a lease disagreement with the man who was originally given the land by the government, a Mr. Cundiff. Miller murdered Cundiff in the zoo/home pictured above, but was acquitted of wrongdoing, and continued living at Two Guns.
For a while.
The zoo itself, which contained all manner of wildlife, almost killed Miller several times. A mountain lion seriously mauled him. A gila monster bite swelled one of his arms up for almost six months. As one historian put it, “a small Canada Lynx very nearly disemboweled him.”
After Miller had finally had enough of the cursed place and set out for New Mexico, a schoolteacher in a nearby town tried to build a house on the site, but left the project unfinished when her husband had to be committed to an insane asylum.
Another attempt was made at resoration in the 1950s, when a restaurant, tavern and service station were built near the stone remains. All of these structures now sit dilapidated and unused.
All That Is Left
Today, Two Guns sits totally abandoned. There are still wire fences surrounding the ruins, but they have all been cut open at strategic points to allow the passage of anyone who wishes to trespass. While I’m a big fan of urban graffiti, I noted with great relief that no one had taken a spray can or markers to the stone ruins. It is my hope that people will continue to respect the site in this way.
All that remains now are empty shells along a canyon rim, reminders that whether it rests on a ley line nexus, is haunted by its many dead, or is just bizzarely unfortunate, this particular part of the West will not be won.