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Wild West Ghost Town Could Become Historical Landmark - 2002-11-06


A long-neglected Wild West town with a colorful and bloody history could soon become a tourist destination. Canyon Diablo, near Flagstaff, Arizona, is the site of an old train station - the 'last stop' for many. It's also a mysterious place, and some researchers are asking the Navajo Nation to let them look closer. If they're given permission, and find what they're looking for, Canyon Diablo could be developed as a historical landmark.

In the ranchlands of Northeast Arizona, on the southern edge of the Navajo Reservation, sit the remains of a classic old western ghost town.

All that's left of Canyon Diablo are some limestone brick structures, spent bullet shells, and lots of broken glass.

"A lot of the glass dates back to the late 1800s. It's just all over the place," said Jerry Knowles, an author and independent researcher working for the Navajo Nation. He's combing the grounds, looking for remnants of a rail camp that was here over 120 years ago. When crews from the old Atlantic and Pacific Railroad were laying tracks through Northern Arizona in 1880, they encountered Canyon Diablo: 80 kilometers long and nearly 165 meters wide. There was no getting around it, so rail construction stopped while a bridge was built across the chasm and a shack town was erected to house the workers. For the next two years, Canyon Diablo Station seemed to attract every scoundrel and outlaw in the Southwest. According to Mr. Knowles, the town was lawless and there were gunfights day and night.

"A lot of people were murdered here," he said. "A lot of sheriffs were killed. One lasted from - he got a job at 3 o'clock and was buried at 8. This had to be one wild place here."

Fourteen saloons, ten gambling houses and four brothels lined the town's main street during its heyday. After the bridge was completed in late 1881, the rail camp was torn down and carted away; but the wild stories about what happened here live on.

Some historians say Canyon Diablo's murderous past rivals that of any town in the West and that past could give Canyon Diablo a prosperous future. Some Navajos would like to develop the site for tourism, and are asking the tribal government for money to do some research. Group spokesman Elroy Drake says not much is known for certain about Canyon Diablo, and the necessary first step is to separate fact from Wild West legend.

"Now we're trying to find out the history, the actual history," he said. "But with sparse information, written history, we're going to have to do a lot of digging. Once the research is completed, then we'll figure we have enough information to go ahead and decide how to develop that historic town."

It's too early to say what Canyon Diablo will eventually look like, should Navajo officials decide to develop it. Joe Meehan of the Arizona Historical Society in Flagstaff says he hopes whatever's done reflects dignity and restraint. "In some cases you might overdo the actual history of an area, to the point where the legend becomes bigger than the real history," he said. "I would hope that in doing something with Canyon Diablo, they wouldn't over-dramatize the shootouts and the negative aspects of it."

Mr. Meehan points to the southeastern Arizona town of Tombstone, with its reenactments of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, as a good example of what not to do. While he acknowledges the shoot-'em-up history will be what draws most people to Canyon Diablo, the historian says a less commercialized version of the larger historical picture will have more value.

Back at the site, Jerry Knowles agrees, saying his vision for Canyon Diablo includes little more than an interpretive center, some landscaping and road improvements. He also says the area is rich with other history, including tales of Spanish conquistadors, Navajo and Apache battles, fur trappers, and train robberies. He hopes the new Canyon Diablo will focus on more than the area's two bloodiest years.

"When you put it all together, you really get a sense of what happened here," said Mr. Knowles. "And it's good to document it. Then you get a feeling about it. You could always go to Tombstone or somewhere and you get a kick out of it, but there's just as much if not more history here, I think."

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