Holbrook gives visitors glimpse into Arizona's bloody, outlaw past

Holbrook gives visitors glimpse into Arizona's bloody, outlaw past

By Peter Corbett, ontheroadarizona.com
Special for Tucson News Now

Frontier Holbrook was a rough place in the 1880s with too many lawless cowboys, cattle rustlers and horse thieves.

It was not uncommon for drunken cowboys to shoot up the town.

That was the way it was. Well, up until when Commodore Perry Owens was elected Apache County sheriff in 1886. Less than a year later, Owens took on a gang of horse thieves in a five-minute gun battle that left three dead and one wounded.

That Sept. 4, 1887 shootout at a Holbrook house that's still standing was a pivotal moment in cleaning up the town.

Owens, noted for his flowing blond hair, got rid of some of the black hats and Holbrook became a little more civilized.

Now, 130 years later, visitors can still see the sand-colored house within sight of the train depot where Sheriff Owens wounded John Blevins and killed Mose Roberts, Sam Blevins and Andy Blevins, also known as Andy Cooper.

(Source: Peter Corbett)

The Blevins House is one of a handful of sites linked to Holbrook's outlaw past. Other historical landmarks include:

  • The Holbrook Cemetery where a tombstone marks the graves of the three outlaws gunned down by Owens.
  • The restored 1882 Holbrook railroad depot that was the town’s focal point when Owens went to the Blevins House with a warrant for Andy Blevins.
  • A line of stone buildings south of the depot that includes the infamous Bucket of Blood Saloon. It had been known as the Cottage Saloon until a shootout over a card game in 1886 spilled a lot of blood and spawned a gruesome new name.
  • The 1898 Navajo County Courthouse where a planned public hanging of murderer George Smiley, complete with a lavish invitation to the event, drew a sharp rebuke from President William McKinley and a temporary execution reprieve from Arizona Governor Nathan Oakes Murphy in 1899.

The courthouse museum includes a dank jail that might keep youngsters who visit it on the right side of the law, lest they end up in a similar gray bar hotel.

The Blevins house at Joy Nevin Avenue and Second Street (216 Joy Nevin Ave.) is a modest, frame structure that has been turned into a senior citizens home. There is a "Blevins House" sign but nothing else to indicate that it was center stage for one of territorial Arizona's bloodiest shootouts, rivaling the more famous gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone in 1881.

Sheriff Owens was cleared by the coroner's jury in the deaths of Andy and Sam Blevins and Mose Roberts, but there has been speculation over the years that the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Sam Blevins troubled Owens.

He did not seek re-election to Apache County sheriff a year after the gunfight. Owens went to work as a guard on passenger trains running from Albuquerque to Seligman, Ariz.

He was appointed sheriff of Navajo County when it was created in 1895 and served until the end of 1896.

Owens moved to Seligman in 1900, married a woman roughly half his age and ran a store or saloon. He died at age 66 on May 10, 1919 and is buried in the Flagstaff Citizens Cemetery.

Holbrook revisited

Holbrook emerged in 1881 when the railroad pushed west across the high desert of northern Arizona. A settlement had started at Horsehead Crossing on the Little Colorado River by 1872 with a store and saloon but it gave way when the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad built a temporary depot two miles to the west.

(Source: Peter Corbett)

Holbrook is about 235 miles northeast of Tucson. Motorists on Interstate 40 can take Exit 286 to Navajo Boulevard (State Route 77) and drive south about 2 miles to the railroad depot. Park just south of the depot.

  • The Bucket of Blood Saloon is across the road at the eastern end of the three stone buildings on Bucket of Blood Street.
  • The Blevins House is within sight of the eastern end of the train depot to the northeast at Joy Nevin Avenue and Second Street.
  • The Navajo County Courthouse is four blocks north of the Blevins House at 100 E. Arizona St., just east of Navajo Boulevard.
  • The Holbrook Cemetery is 11 blocks north of the courthouse and northeast of Navajo Boulevard and Iowa Street. Take the first entrance off Iowa Street. The Blevins-Roberts grave site is just inside the green block wall as you drive in and is well marked.

The Flagstaff Citizens Cemetery is at 1300 S. San Francisco St. Take San Francisco Street south of Route 66 in downtown Flagstaff and south of Franklin Avenue. The cemetery entrance is across from a multistory parking garage near the Northern Arizona University bookstore. Take Buttercup Avenue in the cemetery back to Doyle Drive and turn right. Drive about 80 yards to the middle of a wall of urns on the north side of the road. Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens' grave is on the west side of Doyle Drive.

*Holbrook also includes a number of relics of Route 66 including the Wigwam Motel, Pow Wow Trading Post and Plainsman restaurant.

Peter Corbett is a longtime Arizona journalist who has lived in Arizona for more than 40 years.

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