Route 66; where all those wonderfully off-beat attractions of ‘Roadside America’ culture first sprouted. By the 1920s, Route 66, known then as the National Trail, was fast-becoming the most popular road in the country for Westward pioneers travelling across the Diablo Canyon. A 19th century isolated trading post in Arizona suddenly became a bustling stop for drivers seeking gas, food, lodging and entertainment. Today, the only thing you’ll find in the barely-there town of Two Guns is the extensive ruin of a 20th century tourist trap.
The last caretaker’s mobile home has been deserted and stripped, and the rare visitors passing through can roam the site freely.
It is believed the roadside town is cursed by a ghost tribe of Apaches who were burnt alive in a nearby cave in 1878 by the Navajos. Looking back at the events, it would seem the site was doomed shortly after an eccentric entrepreneur Harry “Two Guns” Miller came into town with dollar signs in his eyes.
Mr. Miller had got wind of the growing prosperity at the canyon lodge and made a deal with the landowners, Earle and Louis Cundiff, to lease a business site. He transformed the desert land into a full-blown tourist trap, complete with gas station, lodging, food emporium and of course, a zoo.
Miller, who claimed to be full-blooded Apache, also started giving tours of the canyon, which during the 19th century, was the site of the gruesome confrontation between the Navajos and the Apaches. He cleaned up the cave which had essentially served as a tomb for the remaining skeletons of 42 Apache men that had died there in a surprise angry retaliation from the Navajos for attacking their villages.
(You can read more about this harrowing story here).
Miller called it the Apache Death Cave and built fake ruins around it and sold the Apache’s skulls as souvenirs. To make it a little less morbid, he later strung some lights, added a soda stand and renamed it the “Mystery Cave”.
This is when things started to go very wrong for Two Guns.
A series of unfortunate events began to plague Miller and the tourist town. Two Guns suddenly spiralled into misfortune after a major robbery of the trading post. Tension between Miller and his landlords, the Cundiffs, resulted in a heated dispute where Miller shot and killed Mr. Cundiff. He was acquitted at trial but incredibly, he was soon after mauled by mountain lions, twice, on separate occasions. Next he was bitten by a native venomous lizard known as the Gila monster which left him with a disfigured arm.
Finally in 1929, a devastating fire engulfed the roadside town of Two Guns. After losing his greedy court battle with Mrs. Cundiff to keep the land, Miller finally left.
Louise Cundiff and her new husband tried to rebuild the site but by this time, the heyday of Route 66 was over. It had been rerouted to the opposite canyon and the tourists had stopped coming.
A derelict Two Guns was sold and leased numerous times during the 1950s, remaining in a sorry state. In 1960s, as a new Interstate 40 was being built that would give the old attraction its own highway exit and new visitors, an ambitious new owner began re-building a restaurant, souvenir shop, gas station, another zoo, and restoring the tourist trails to the Apache tomb cave. Things were looking up for the attraction but in 1971, it all went up in flames again when another devastating fire swallowed up the last hope for the Two Guns. It has never been inhabited since.
Dare to visit? The barbed-wire fences have open gates so all of the old and newer buildings are accessible. The old stone buildings are intact, despite heavy graffiti. Today, Two Guns has an unlikely Hollywood guardian in Russell Crowe, who purchased the property in 2011 to film a remake of WestWorld. No word on when production will start (status: ‘in development’ on IMDB.com), but it would probably be wise to make a ‘no smoking rule’ a priority on set. Until then, the site is completely abandoned; no caretaker, no soda stands, no nobody…
(c) Alison Lienau
How to Find Two Guns:
On I-40 about 30 miles east of Flagstaff – has its own exit.
Interstate 40, Two Guns, Arizona, 86047, United States
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