His­tory and Magic Come Alive

On the Grand Canyon Rail­way

Snowbirds & RV Travelers - - Contents - Story and Pho­tos Courtesy of Xan­terra Parks and Re­sorts

Rid­ing a train as it trav­els west al­ways seems ro­man­ti­cally nos­tal­gic — you

can’t help but re­mem­ber the great sto­ries of how the West was won. Many say it wasn’t the cowboys that changed the wilder­ness, but in­stead the mighty train. There is no bet­ter ex­am­ple of this by­gone life­style than the Grand Canyon Rail­way.

As far back as the 1880s peo­ple rec­og­nized the po­ten­tial of the Grand Canyon, how­ever, the area was so re­mote and dif­fi­cult to travel to it might have just re­mained a gi­ant hole, if it weren’t for Wil­liam Owen “Buckey” O’Neill and his grand vi­sions of a rail­road to the canyon.

O’Neill, who was mayor of Prescott at the time, owned sev­eral min­eral claims and had built a sub­stan­tial cabin on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. While he’d found his wealth, he wasn’t able to un­lock it from the canyon due to the high cost of trans­port­ing the ore. A man of ac­tion, he lob­bied for nearly five years be­fore se­cur­ing the fund­ing for the rail­way.

On Sept. 17, 1901, O’Neill’s vi­sion be­came a re­al­ity when the first steam train took pas­sen­gers and sup­plies from Wil­liams, Ari­zona to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Even though O’Neill wasn’t there to see it for him­self – he died while serv­ing as a Rough Rider in the Span­ish Amer­i­can War – his spirit was smil­ing as the steam rose through the for­est en route to the Grand Canyon.

The rail­way rev­o­lu­tion­ized the canyon, shar­ing its nat­u­ral won­der with the gen­eral public. In its hey­day, Grand Canyon Rail­way – then a sub­sidiary of the Atchi­son, Topeka and Santa Fe Rail­way Com­pany – had two sched­uled ar­rivals per day at the South Rim, but as many as six spe­cial trains might also ar­rive at the Grand Canyon in one day.

The fi­nal rays of golden sun­light dis­ap­peared June 30, 1968, as Train No. 14, a diesel lo­co­mo­tive pulling only one bag­gage car and one coach car left Grand Canyon De­pot with just three peo­ple aboard. Be­gin­ning the 104 km (65 mi) trek to Wil­liams, the en­gi­neer gave the horn two short blasts heard only by those aboard and canyon wildlife. No one was present to send the train off, or to cel­e­brate the con­tri­bu­tions the rail­way had made. As the last pas­sen­ger train

trav­eled out of sight, the tracks grew quiet and stayed that way for nearly 20 years.

It wasn’t un­til a de­ter­mined crop­duster, and his wife, en­tered the scene that the rail­way had a chance of com­ing back to life. Reach­ing deep into their pock­ets and tap­ping all the re­sources avail­able to them, Max and Thelma Biegert ded­i­cated ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing an ini­tial $15 mil­lion, to re­in­state train service to the Grand Canyon.

Pulling to­gether a tal­ented team of peo­ple in­clud­ing steam lo­co­mo­tive ex­perts, Max and Thelma went to work restor­ing the much-di­lap­i­dated Wil­liams and Grand Canyon De­pots as well as the 104 km (65 mi) of weather-beaten rail­road track. The team re­built washout ar­eas and bridges, re­plac­ing 30,000 rail­road ties and many more rails, beams, and spikes.

Their hard work paid off, and on Sept. 17, 1989 – 88 years to the day from the first train to the canyon – Max and Thelma Biegert brought the pow­er­ful pull of the steam lo­co­mo­tive back to Grand Canyon Na­tional Park.

More than 10,000 peo­ple and dig­ni­taries ar­rived in Wil­liams to cel­e­brate the re­turn of the rail­way, with more gath­ered to greet the pas­sen­gers ar­riv­ing at Grand Canyon De­pot. It seemed as though the whole world rec­og­nized the im­por­tance of re­turn­ing train service to the canyon.

Grand Canyon Rail­way gained mo­men­tum with each pass­ing trip to the canyon, grow­ing into the op­er­a­tion it is to­day. Pro­vid­ing daily service and trans­port­ing more than 225,000 pas­sen­gers to the Grand Canyon each year (more than 2.5 mil­lion since 1989), the rail­way is much more than an al­ter­na­tive mode of trans­porta­tion.

The sim­ple act of re­turn­ing train service re­stored an in­te­gral part of the Grand Canyon’s

his­tory. The wail of the his­toric lo­co­mo­tives trav­el­ing the rails to­day shares the story of how the canyon came to be.

No, the West was not won by cowboys or cavalry, but by the train and the peo­ple whose vi­sion of grandeur was matched only by the Grand Canyon it­self.

Pas­sen­gers de­part from the his­toric Wil­liams De­pot and ar­rive at the Grand Canyon De­pot, the last op­er­at­ing log de­pot in the United States. Lo­cated in the heart of Grand Canyon Na­tional Park’s his­toric dis­trict, near the world-fa­mous El To­var Ho­tel, Grand Canyon De­pot is just 180 m (200 yd) from the edge of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

The trip to the canyon cov­ers 104 km (65 mi) of clas­sic Old West ter­ri­tory, in­clud­ing high desert plains with end­less vis­tas, small ar­royos, and por­tions of the world’s largest pon­derosa pine for­est.

Trip high­lights in­clude a daily Wild West shootout at the 1908 Wil­liams De­pot be­fore the morn­ing de­par­ture; and en­ter­tain­ment and live ac­tion aboard the train, fea­tur­ing roaming western singers, as well as the in­fa­mous Cataract Creek Gang and the jus­tice of a Grand Canyon Rail­way Mar­shal.

Grand Canyon Rail­way is an au­tho­rized con­ces­sion­aire of the Na­tional Park Service and Kaibab Na­tional For­est and was hon­oured in 2004 with the pres­ti­gious Gover­nor’s Tourism Spe­cial Events Award for its Po­lar Ex­press spe­cial en­gage­ment train (See side­bar).


Grand Canyon Rail­way op­er­ates daily service (ex­cept De­cem­ber 25) from Wil­liams, Ari­zona into Grand Canyon Na­tional Park. The Wil­liams De­pot ticket counter is open seven days a week, 7:30 am – 7:30 pm Ari­zona time.


Pas­sen­gers have the op­tion to stay overnight at the canyon and re­turn to Wil­liams on the reg­u­larly sched­uled train at a later date.

Grand Canyon Rail­way RV Park is just west of the his­toric Wil­liams De­pot and op­po­site the famed Cataract Creek. Na­ture paths and a shut­tle take guests from the RV Park to the De­pot, where Grand Canyon Rail­way be­gins its daily jour­ney to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. For Grand Canyon Rail­way reser­va­tions, call 1-800-THE-TRAIN (1-800-843-8724) or visit www.thetrain.com.

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