Friday, May 23, 2014

Canyon Diablo: Recreating the Deadliest Town in the West

About 5 years ago, I had planned on starting terrain for Old West gaming, based on the the real-life town of Canyon Diablo in Arizona around 1880. But I could never devote the time to finding out more and bringing it to life in miniature...until now.

 Located about midway between Flagstaff and Winslow, the actual geological feature of Canyon Diablo was the biggest obstacle to the completion of the main East-West line of the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad. Like the Union Pacific, the A&P built the line from both directions, hoping to meet somewhere in the San Fransisco mountains east of Flagstaff. The canyon would be crossed by a steel truss bridge assembled off-site and delivered in 1880. But, someone measured wrong - the bridge turned up short - and westward construction of the line was halted overnight.

This was the genesis of the shantytown of Canyon Diablo. Everybody has an image of the "Hell on Wheels" town....and this town fit every stereotype - Lawless, violent, and fueled by the boredom and cash of the railroad workers. 

On the northside of the railroad right-of-way stood a large, yellow-painted A&P depot (this was likely to have been a combination passenger depot and freight warehouse). Accounts also indicate the existence of a bunkhouse for the railroad workers. Being the end-of-the-line (and later a flag stop after the canyon was crossed) , it was also likely to have had a water tower and , possibly, a small "sanding tower". All of this, plus various railroad equipment, spare cars, stacks of ties and rails, would have congregated around the depot. 

There is conjecture for the existence of a north-south wagon trail, that ran west from Winslow (supposedly following the same route of Route 66/I-40), then proceeding due north upon reaching the canyon proper to a site where the canyon could be crossed. There was a real "town" here, appropriately named "The Crossing" (which would later become the "town" of Leupp), but USGS survey maps of the time only show one road running West-Southeast with no connection to Canyon Diablo. However, a wagon route north from the town to "The Crossing" would make sense, as passengers could disembark at Canyon Diablo, rather than the farther town of Winslow, so I've included it.

 Stretching east, along the northside of the railroad right-of-way, was the only road of Canyon Diablo - "Hell St." - and buildings facing each other across this dusty avenue included 14 saloons (including "The Cootchy Clatch", "The Road to Ruin" & "The Last Drink"), 10 gambling dens, 4 "house of ill repute" (all unmarked), 2 dance halls (little more than houses of ill repute themselves), eating counters, shanties/tents, and a grand total of 1 grocer and 1 dry goods store. All this to serve a town of nearly 2000 people.

Being situated in the arid Painted Desert region of NE Arizona, it's odd to think that these structures were made primarily of wood, tar paper, and tin - when trees are few and far between. There is an explanation though and it lies just to the west - the San Fransisco mountains and the largest stand of hardwood pine in the Southwest, the present-day Coconino National Forest. Edward E. Ayers (an Illinois resident - like me - and benefactor for the Chicago Field Museum - not like me) started a lumber business in Flagstaff supplying ties to the A&P railroad. Ayer's lumber was so renowned in the territory that it's probable that town residents would buy (or steal) his lumber as it was trans-shipped eastward.

There was no law in Canyon Diablo, because no lawman lived long enough to enforce it. Of the 6 officers who lived there, none lived longer than a month - one put on his badge in the afternoon and was promptly buried by nightfall. It is rumored that plenty of residents met their end here and there is reportedly both unmarked and mass graves just to the east of the canyon proper. What are their names, their stories, how did they die?

Unfortunately, we don't know. Within 2 years, the new bridge had finally been completed and the town dried up overnight. The workers, barmen, ladies of the night, hustlers, and criminals boarded the trains and disappeared. The town itself probably was raided for materials by nearby ranchers and Navajo from the reservation, anything left decayed. Canyon Diablo existed as a flag stop on the line for many years and a Navajo trading post (whose ruins are the only ones left) existed around the turn of the century.

And so it begins...below are a few of the buildings I've started. The largest will probably be "The Cootchy Clatch" (under construction), the 2-story will probably be the Dry Goods Store, the large 1-story will be "The Road to Ruin", the small pitched-roof will be the Grocer, and the smallest will be one of the "houses of ill repute".

1 comment:

Pawn Cocktail said...

Fascinating history & very nice buildings.