The Apache Death Cave:  Legend or Elaborate Hoax?

The West is home to legends larger than life, and a close look at one of the largest reveals that their tie to history is often tenuous.

By James Parr

In the middle of the harsh, arid prairie desert, east of Flagstaff, Arizona, on the side of old Route 66 and Interstate 40, sits the ghost town of Two Guns, Arizona. Much of Two Guns’ history is widely disputed among historians, but one thing is true, in order to understand the history of Two Guns and the death cave that lies below the town, you must first know the history of Canyon Diablo, the roughest railroad town ever.

I. The Account

“For the brief span of its vicious life, more famous places like Abilene, Virginia City, and Tombstone could not hold a candle to the evil of this end-of-the-railroad’s depravity, ” writes Gladwell “Toney” Richardson, an Arizona author. “Murder on the street was common. Holdups were almost hourly occurrences, newcomers being slugged on mere suspicion that they carried valuables.” Canyon Diablo was the one place that civilized folk had no interest spending too much time in. Richardson writes, “In this wild, untamed town the death rate was high. A boothill was established south of the tracks from the very beginning. At one time 35 graves could be counted in it.” The town of Canyon Diablo existed from the summer of 1880 until late 1882, when work on the railroad bridge to cross the canyon was completed. The town left an unnoticeable mark on the landscape.

Just a short walk to the south of Canyon Diablo lies the town of Two Guns, perched on the canyon rim as well. “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,” according to Oliver Hong, a former in-house intern for Atlas Obscura. “When Earle and Louise Cundiff blew into town, they bought 320 acres of the land, making Canyon Lodge a busy stop for travelers.” Before Two Guns existed, it is alleged that Billy the Kid and his gang had their hideout on the opposite side of the canyon during the winter of 1879. Two Guns, or Canyon Lodge, became the safer alternative to crossing the canyon, rather than trying to cross north close to the abandoned shack town of Canyon Diablo and the large gorge. Later, Two Guns quickly became a hot spot for tourists who were traveling along Route 66.

Two Guns’ tourist appeal was all due to Henry “Two Gun” Miller who became interested in the possibility of establishing a business in the area leasing land from the Cundiffs. Miller established a zoo with mountain lions and other desert animals. He also built a store on top of the death cave and cleaned out the cavern. He sold the skulls of dead Apaches he found in the cave to tourists who came through his establishment. The cave was outfitted with trails, lights, fake dwellings and a soda stand outside the opening. The cleaning of the cave and sale of the skulls prompted a curse on the town and anyone who owned it.

II. The Controversy

At times tales told and history are not agreeable. The history of Billy the Kid, the Apache Death Cave, Canyon Diablo and their attached stories are not entirely accurate. Many are fictional accounts that are recognized as fact, the biggest being the sale of the dead Apache skulls. “Many accounts accuse Miller of clearing out the caves and selling Apache skulls but there is one fact which goes against this idea,” writes Blue Miller, author of the blog Never Quite Lost, “Miller claimed to have Apache blood (whether full blood or half-blood depends on which account you read) and while that claim is perhaps a little tenuous, as such he would have been unlikely to sell the bones of his ancestors.” Another piece of evidence to corroborate is that while under Miller’s ownership, Two Guns and the death cave were advertised as “Apache Cave.” There is no mention of death in postcards or accounts of the area from this time. Two stories about the cave have been told. The first is an account of cavalry men taking refuge in the cave from a war party. The second involved a brutal fight that ended with the death of 42 Apache warriors. This story is the most widely told.

Despite this story being riddled with untruths, it is recognized as fact by Wikipedia, numerous travel blogs, visitors on Trip Advisor, Google Maps and every search result that has the Apache Death Cave or Two Guns referenced. The fake Navajo versus Apache story is still being told and recognized as fact today because of one man, Gladwell “Toney” Richardson, author and fourth-generation Indian trader who traded on the Navajo reservation. Richardson wrote over the course of his career 300 novels and around 1,000 articles. The tale of Canyon Diablo and the Apache Death Cave are both a product of Richardson’s imagination.

“Nearly everything you’ve read is bull—,” says George Shaw, an archivist at the Arizona State Railroad Museum. “Never happened.”

The scene describing Canyon Diablo as a town that made Tombstone seem like a walk in the park never happened, yet remains a scene that does exist in the minds of many travelers and Arizonians. We know this to be fact as the one and only source for all of the information regarding Canyon Diablo and the Apache Death Cave is Richardson. For example, there is no record of a Canyon Diablo newspaper in the town, nor record of the businesses described or any sort of “Hell Street” or the named characters who lived their lives there, like Clabberfoot Annie or B.S. Mary. “Nearly everything you’ve read is bull—,” says George Shaw, an archivist at the Arizona State Railroad Museum. “Never happened.”

What then is Richardson’s connection to Two Guns? Blue Miller writes, “Richardson also had a personal connection with Two Guns. He had worked in trading posts since he was a young boy and, in 1950, when his father SI Richardson, bought Two Guns, Gladwell and his wife Millie ran the place for several years and it was while living and working at the trading post that Richardson began writing a small book called Two Guns, Arizona. Published in 1968 and long out of print, this small tome appears to be from where the legend of Canyon Diablo and the embellished story of the cave originate.” Later in his life, Richardson was regarded as an expert on Western history, which provided credit to the stories of Two Guns, Canyon Diablo and the Apache Death Cave.

What is the truth of Canyon Diablo, the fiercest town in the West? Blue Miller writes,

The truth was that the town, like most railroad camps, was a place where people worked hard, perhaps had a little too much to drink on a Saturday night, but were too careful of their jobs to participate in much mayhem or murder. However, that doesn’t make for quite such an exciting story! By the time that Richardson wrote his version of history, the town had been gone for almost eighty years, meaning that there would have been very few people who had experienced Canyon Diablo first-hand, and so his account became universally accepted.

Richardson imagined scenes in a town that did exist. Canyon Diablo was still the place where the railroad stopped for a time, but it was never as violent as he described. The truth is, the “camp followers” set up their own shops, saloons, brothels and everything the railroad could not provide but townspeople could pay for. “Some enterprising gentleman or woman would come along and say, ‘You want a bottle of whiskey? I’ve got a case,’ ” Shaw said. “ ‘You want a woman to sleep with? I have women to sleep with.’ ” These were regular happenings during this time at railroad camps that awaited bridges to be built or tunnels to be dug.

What is the truth regarding Billy the Kid’s hideout? Blue Miller writes, “Once again, it’s a great tale but the likelihood of it being true is extremely low. Robert M. Uttley in his definitive biography of William H. Bonney has The Kid in his home territory of Fort Sumner, New Mexico, throughout the time that Richardson claimed he was hiding stolen horses in the canyon.” Billy the Kid was not close to Two Guns or Diablo Canyon during the winter of 1879, rather was 400 miles away in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

What is the truth of the widely told and embellished story of the death cave? While I was visiting Two Guns in December of 2021, I walked around the ruins of the once-sprawling tourist trap and town. I went into the alleged death cave. I had no previous knowledge of the cave and at that time had no clue of the stories told. I simply saw the name on Google Maps and I k new I had to check it out. I crawled into a smaller passage near the fake ruins and felt a large gust of hot air hit my face. I could not explain it, but it sent chills down my spine. After I climbed out of the cave I did some research and found that in the story of the Apache Death Cave, the Navajo had stood above a crack in the rock and felt a hot burst of air come out. The hot air came from a fire built in the cave, and that was how the Navajo discovered the cave and the Apache raiding parties. My experience leads me to think maybe the story is true, or maybe the truth is obscure or maybe it was the desert, exhaling her dusty, hot breath.

The author explores the Apache Cave.

Photos copyright and courtesy of the author.