The story of Two Guns, Arizona could easily be described as a Shakespearian tragedy on Route 66.
It has all the workings of a modern-day Hamlet – murder, madness, and supernatural superstition dotting its colorful history.
Two Guns, originally known as Canyon Lodge, started out as a modest trading post at the beginning of the 19th century, run by a couple of homesteaders by the names of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel B. Oldfield. A few more westward pioneers staked claim to the area over the years, and by the early 1920s the road through town, known as the National Trail Highway, became the preferred route across Diablo Canyon. When Earle and Louise Cundiff blew into town, they brought 320 acres of the land, making Canyon Lodge a busy stop for travelers. By the late ’20s, what was once the National Trail Highway was blossoming into the famed Route 66, and the once-isolated trading post was evolving into a bustling stop for incoming drivers needing gas, food, and oil.
This quickly escalating prosperity caught the attention of a man named Harry Miller. A well-educated veteran of the Spanish-American War and an ostentatious publicist, Miller was an eccentric man who claimed to be full-blooded Apache and was known for his garish and unpleasant demeanor. Wanting a piece of the action, Harry “Two Guns” Miller allegedly struck a deal with the Cundiffs to lease a business site for ten years.
Under Miller’s watch, the trading post was renamed Two Guns and turned into a full-blown tourist trap. He grew out his hair and braided it, taking on a persona by the name of Chief Crazy Thunder. He started a zoo with chicken-wire cages that held mountain lions and other native Arizona animals and started tours down into a canyon cave now called Apache Death Cave, where 42 Apache men met their death in battle.
The story of the cave was interesting in its own right, but Miller believed that the tale needed something more. He cleaned up the remaining bones he found in the cave, built fake ruins, and repurposed the tomb into a “cave dwelling.” In a macabre commercial stroke of genius, he saved the skulls of the ill-fated Apache and sold them as souvenirs. In order to make the cave a bit more tourist-friendly, he also strung up some electric lighting, threw in a soda stand, and renamed the death cave the “Mystery Cave.”
It was around this time that people say the curse of Two Guns began.
With Miller’s tourist-attracting efforts, Two Guns grew even faster, but it was only a year before the town became overwhelmed with misfortune, starting with a drifter couple who stayed in Two Guns for a night, and then stole a large amount of merchandise from the trading post. This set Miller back quite a bit, but it was only the beginning.
The terms and broad wording of Miller’s ten-year lease had always been a source of tension between him and Earl Cundiff, and that tension finally came to a head on March 3, 1926. During a heated dispute over the lease, Miller shot Cundiff in cold blood. For unknown reasons, Miller was acquitted at the trial.
While Miller didn’t go to prison, he suffered in other ways. Shortly after his trial, Miller was mauled by a mountain lion on two separate occasions. He also was bitten by a poisonous Gila monster, which led to an illness and a completely swollen arm. This must have made the two mountain lion attacks seem not so bad in comparison.
In 1929, a huge fire would gut the trading post at Two Guns, and when the widow Cundiff tried to prove her claim on the homestead land, Miller protested, claiming that the land was his because he was there before them, which was a bold-faced lie. After $15,000 worth of court actions later, Cundiff managed to keep ownership of the land – Miller would leave soon after.
Even without Miller, Two Guns and its inhabitants continued to suffer. Route 66 was rerouted to the opposite canyon, taking its travelers and their money with it. Louise Cundiff and her new husband, Phillip Hersch, had to rebuild everything in Two Guns, including the zoo, on the opposite canyon just to keep the town going.
Two Guns was finally sold in the 1950s, and doomed to be leased and abandoned numerous times until 1960, when a man named Dreher revitalized the area with a restaurant, gift shop, gas station, and even another shot at a zoo. He created tourist trails to the cave, and began exploring the possibilities of touring the cavern where all of those Apache warriors Miller claimed to be descended from lost their lives.
It seemed that Dreher was immune to the Two Guns curse, or perhaps it was finally broken. With Interstate 40 on its way to completion, Two Guns would have its own dedicated exit ramp, which meant tourists would once again be passing through the town. All was going splendidly – until a huge inferno swallowed up the entire place in 1971.
That was be the last time Two Guns would ever be inhabited.
Two Guns is now considered an abandoned ghost town. The ruins of the zoo and the gutted gas station still stand, and you can still visit the cave. In 2011, Russell Crowe purchased Two Guns to film a Westworld remake, but only time will tell if the production will suffer from the curse, or if Hollywood is somehow immune.
Know Before You Go
It's on I-40/Highway 180/Route 66 between Winslow and Flagstaff exit 230.
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