History and Magic Come Alive
On the Grand Canyon Railway
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).
HOURS OF OPERATION:
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.
ROUND-TRIP ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE TIMES:
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.