WELCOME TO HELLSTREET
The Toughest Hellhole in the West
Canyon Diablo, located between Flagstaff and Winslow, Arizona, once described as "The worst trail town
in Arizona-perhaps the entire West"..."the toughest Hellhole in the West"... and "the West's most deadly
town" are only a few of the phrases used to describe the railroad town of Canyon Diablo, which came into
existence in 1880, the town taking the name of the canyon.
Between 1880 and 1882, more killings as a result of gunfights, robberies, and murders took place there
than in Tombstone, Dodge City, and Abilene, Kansas combined. If Tombstone was noted for "having a
man for breakfast every morning," then it could be said that Canyon Diablo "had a man for breakfast,
lunch, and supper every day."
The canyon in northern Arizona had earlier been given its name by U.S. Army Captain Whipple in 1853
while on an expedition making a preliminary survey along the 35th parallel for a possible railroad route to
California. When the party reached the deep gorge Whipple described it as a chasm which could be
bridged by a railroad, though the party had to go miles out of their way to get across. He appropriately
named it Canyon Diablo (Devil’s Canyon). When the town was later born, it took the canyon's name, which
ended up being extremely appropriate for the reputation that the town would soon earn.
The town of Canyon Diablo originated in 1880 as a railroad camp with the westward approach of the
Atlantic and Pacific Railroad coming from Winslow. In November, 1881 the tracks reached the eastern
edge of the canyon and stopped, awaiting bridge construction. Timber parts of the bridge to span the
gorge were pre-assembled elsewhere, but someone misread the plans and the bridge came up several
feet short. This mistake, and having to wait for a new bridge to be shipped plus other financial
difficulties, meant that construction was delayed for seven months.
As railroad construction moved west a small mobile business community followed the railroad catering to
the needs of railroad men, and often referred to as Hell on Wheels. Once the railroad stopped at the
edge of the canyon waiting for the new bridge the deadly town of Canyon Diablo sprang into existence.
This community quickly produced numerous saloons, brothels, dance halls, and gambling houses, all of
which remained open 24 hours a day. The town grew to a population of around 2,000 mostly untamed
citizens. The town had two lines of buildings facing one another across the rock bed main street. The
center street, however, was not named Main Street, but "Hell Street". It consisted of fourteen saloons,
ten gambling houses, four brothels and two dance halls (essentially houses of ill repute), some sleazy
eating counters, one grocery store, and one dry goods store. Scattered about in the vicinity of downtown
were large numbers of tents, shotgun houses, and hastily thrown up shacks that served as local
There were no lawmen initially, so it quickly became a very dangerous place. Its population was mostly
made up of railroad workers along with passing drifters, outlaws, gamblers, and prostitutes. With the
closest law enforcement being some 100 miles away, the settlement earned a reputation of being meaner
than Tombstone and Dodge City combined, with many of it "citizens” winding up in the local cemetery.
Murder on the street was common and there was a holdup almost every hour. Newcomers to Canyon
Diablo were often beaten or killed on the mere suspicion that they were carrying valuables. Its “Boot Hill”
cemetery filled up fast, where at one time 35 graves could be seen with wooden markers and stone
covered mounds, though many bodies were buried where they were found.
Canyon Diablo had a rapid succession of peace offices, a total of seven marshals in 14 months, the last
one fleeing for his life. The first town marshal pinned on his badge at 3 pm and was laid out for burial at 8
pm the same day. The second lasted two long weeks before he was gunned down; the third, three weeks
before he was shot with forty-five slugs; the fourth, six days. All of the successors met with more or less
the same fate, lasting a few days or a few weeks. After one was buried, it would sometimes take several
weeks before another future resident of Boot Hill was appointed.
There followed a period when the town was without a marshal, until a stranger, an ex-preacher from
Texas, rode into town carrying two pistols, and being spotted by the hiring committee, was offered the
job. Being hungry, he accepted, and lasted a record thirty days, killing a man a day and wounding so many
that the railroad hospital in Winslow refused to accept any more gunshot victims.
Tales about the exploits of colorful characters at Canyon Diablo, including Billy the Kid, Keno Harry,
Clabberfoot Annie and B.S. Mary (yes, just what you think B.S. stands for) were every bit as wild as those
told about Tombstone or Virginia City. Clabberfoot Annie and B.S. Mary were rival madams having
brothels across the street from each other. They reportedly disliked each other and often shouted
insults at each other across the street and engaged in fights with each other in the middle of the street
ripping the clothes off each other to the delight of the gathered crowd.
During this time the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad ran into financial difficulties, and the task of completing
the Canyon Diablo bridge was taken over by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad and the bridge
was finally completed in June, 1882. After completion of the span, almost all the transient residents of
Canyon Diablo - railroad construction workers, cowboys, prospectors, hunters, gamblers, prostitutes, ex-
Civil War soldiers, thieves, and cutthroats - decided to move on. When the first train rolled over the
bridge at 3:37 on July 1, 1882, the rip-roaring town of Canyon Diablo died overnight.
ONE LAST DRINK
Canyon Diablo lingered on for awhile as somewhat more peaceful and became a trading post, and had a
small school and post office, and the Canyon Diablo Train Station was a flag stop for many years. What
remained of the town of Canyon Diablo continued to dwindle, and in 1903 the only thing remaining in the
town was a Navajo trading post. Though mostly peaceful, the area was still a hotbed of activity with train
robberies and outlaws fleeing the law.
The Canyon Diablo Shootout was a gunfight between lawmen and a pair of bandits that occurred on April
8, 1905, at Canyon Diablo. On the night before, two men named John Shaw and William Evans robbed a
saloon in Winslow and made off with at least $200 in silver coins. Two lawmen pursued the bandits and on
the following day they encountered each other in Canyon Diablo. A three-second shootout ensued,
which was described at the time as "one huge explosion" that resulted in the death of Shaw and the
wounding and capture of Evans.
Little is known about the lives of Shaw and Evans before they became badmen, Evans was an ex-convict
who also went by the name of William Smith, or Smythe. Both were in their early to mid twenties when
they decided that banditry would be easier than being a cowboy. The robbery which ultimately led to the
shooting in Canyon Diablo occurred on the night of April 7, 1905. Shortly before midnight, Shaw and
Evans entered the Wigwam Saloon in Winslow, Arizona, dressed in their finest clothing. The two headed
straight for the bar and ordered a couple shots of rot gut whiskey and saw seven men playing poker at a
table. They weren't interested in wasting time and before drinking their whiskey they turned around and
pulled out their revolvers and relieved the gamblers of their money then fled out the front door without
firing a shot.
Pete Pemberton, the deputy sheriff of Navajo County, and owner of the saloon, was immediately notified
and after examining the crime scene he informed his superior, Sheriff Chet Houck. Shortly before,
Pemberton and the city marshal, Bob Giles, found a trail of silver coins along the railroad tracks leading to
Flagstaff so it was assumed that the bandits had jumped on board a moving train and that the coins must
have fallen out of their pockets. From Holbrook, Sheriff Houck boarded a train to Flagstaff, where he met
up with Pemberton and started an investigation. But, after finding neither of the bandits or any relevant
information, they reboarded the train for Winslow. Luckily, however, on the ride back the lawmen just
happened to receive word that two suspicious looking men had been seen hiding in the bushes along the
railroad tracks, near the turn to Canyon Diablo.
The two lawmen followed their instincts and stopped the train a couple miles past Canyon Diablo then got
off to walk back on foot. By the time they had made it back the sun was just beginning to set.
Sheriff Houck and Pemberton first made contact with Fred Volz, who owned the nearby trading post. Volz
told the policemen that earlier in the day there had been two well-dressed men standing outside the
trading post for a long time and acting suspiciously. Just then, Evans and Shaw came around the corner
of the trading post and were spotted. The two bandits were walking the opposite way, towards the train
depot, so the two lawmen went after them. When they were all about six to eight feet apart, Houck called
out for them to submit to a search, to which one of them said: "No one searches us!". The two pairs
briefly stood face-to-face when all of a sudden each man went for his side arm. All four began shooting at
point blank range, Houck advanced to within four feet of the outlaws. Having failed to make any hits with
his first five shots, Shaw looked down to reload his gun when he was struck in the head by one of Houck's
bullets. Pemberton then wounded Evans in the leg and he fell to the ground shooting. With his last
bullet, Evans aimed for Houck and fired, but Pemberton shot him again, this time in the shoulder, which
knocked the weapon out of his hand. The bullet went through Houck's coat on the left side, grazed him
across the stomach, and then exited through the right side. The wound was not considered serious
though. In roughly three seconds, Shaw was dead and Evans was badly wounded. As was common in the
Old West, most men filled their six-shooters with only five rounds so they could rest the firing pin on an
empty slot and avoid accidents. Sheriff Houck, Shaw and Evans each fired all five of their bullets, but
Pemberton had one extra, making for a total of twenty-one shots fired.
Immediately after the shootout, Sheriff Houck had the body of Shaw placed in a pine wood coffin,
provided by Volz, and buried in a shallow grave because of the extremely rocky soil. Evans was taken to
the hospital in Winslow, where he recovered, and later he was sent to Yuma Territorial Prison for nine
years. $271 worth of silver coins was found in their possession.
The most bizarre part of the event was yet to come. On the night after the shooting, a group of cowboys
of the Hashknife Gang, once employed by the Aztec Land & Cattle Company near Holbrook, were having
drinks at the Wigwam Saloon when they heard the news and how both Evans and Shaw failed to drink the
shots they had paid for on the night before. One of them came up with the idea of going to Canyon Diablo
to exhume Shaw's corpse for one final drink.
Between fifteen and twenty men hastily volunteered for the journey and, as Sheriff Houck and Pemberton
did, they hopped aboard a westbound train and made it to Canyon Diablo at about dawn on April 10, 1905.
First they had a few more drinks at the train station and then went to borrow some shovels from Fred
Volz to proceed with digging up Shaw's coffin. Volz was angry about what the drunken mob intended to
do in the cemetery so at first he was reluctant in giving up his tools. However, he eventually gave in and
provided not only the shovels, but a Kodak camera. According to differing accounts, Volz either wanted
pictures to collect reward money, being that he was directly involved in the demise of the outlaws, or they
were taken for posterity. A short time later, Shaw's coffin was open and two of the cowboys had his body
lifted out of the box and leaned up against the picket fence surrounding another man's grave.
Interestingly, Shaw appeared to be smiling, which made all of the men uncomfortable, some of whom
began to cry. After giving Shaw "a plentiful gulp of whiskey", taking a few pictures, and saying some
prayers, his body was replaced in the coffin with a half-empty bottle and put back into the grave.
The pictures were displayed on the walls of the Wigwam Saloon in Winslow until the 1940s when the
building was torn down. Just seven months after the shooting in Canyon Diablo, Deputy Pemberton
drunkenly shot and killed Marshal Bob Giles during a dispute in the Wigwam Saloon. Pemberton was
arrested and found guilty, but he was acquitted after serving only a small fraction of his twenty-five year
In 1885 the Aztec Land and Cattle Company located its headquarters in Holbrook, Arizona. Holbrook
initially welcomed the money of the cattle company and its associated cowboys, until they saw what they
were in for. The cowboys working for the Company became know as the Hashknife Outfit, so named for
the Company’s hashknife cattle brand. The buckaroos of the outfit quickly gained the unsavory
reputation of being the "thievinist, fightinest bunch of cowboys” in the United States. The sudden
presence of so many cow punchers also gave rise to rustling, robbery and gunfights, with much of the
cattle thievery perpetuated on the Aztec Cattle Company itself.
Though many said that the Hashknife cowboys were good men, there were a number of them who had
reputations for hot-headedness and others, who were outright outlaws. Some of these crooked cowboys
were wanted men and on two occasions, they were linked to train robberies at Canyon Diablo. Another
time, a cowboy took off with a bunch of the outfit’s cattle and headed to Colorado. There, he set up a
saloon with his profits. However, he was soon without money again and rejoined the outfit once more.
One of the several train robberies in the Canyon Diablo area committed in 1889 by Hashknife Gang
members came to be known as the Canyon Diablo Train Robbery. On the morning of March 20, near
Canyon Diablo, four masked cowboys stopped a train belonging to the Santa Fe Railway and stole about
$1,500 before riding north. A reward of $500 was offered for any information leading to the capture of the
bandits and the sheriff of Yavapai County was informed. Sheriff William “Buckey” O’Neill organized a
posse with four other men and began pursuing the bandits, who were easy to track because of footprints
left in snow by the horses. Several days later, the posse made contact with them just across the border
in Utah. A running battle ensued for the next five days, at the end of which, the posse trapped the
cowboys inside Wahweap Canyon, near Cannonville, and forced them to surrender.
Over the years many more lawless episodes occurred, shootings, holdups, train robberies and the like.
Though mostly peaceful, the area still had the occasional train robbery and outlaws fleeing the law, but
those too became fewer and farther between.
And in 1934 the trading post burned down and Canyon Diablo faded away.
|Enjoy responsibly. Drink responsibly. Don't drink and drive.