Grand Canyon Railway Adventure:
Riding to a Natural Wonder
by Don Woodwell
It was a cool, drizzling November day when we pulled into the
Williams Depot's parking lot, but the excitement of riding the
Grand Canyon Railway (GCRy) to the Grand Canyon after months
of sharp anticipation pushed the dull weather to the back of
our minds. Ahead of us lay what promised to be a truly fun and
We quickly entered the century old Williams Depot, picked up
the tickets which I had reserved several months before, and stepped
out onto the platform where our train awaited us. An Alco FPA-4
A-B diesel set in GCRy livery headed up thirteen restored Harriman-style
coaches and 1950s stainless steel cars for today's 65-mile run
to the Canyon climbing grades up to three percent and rounding
12-degree curves. The standard gauge line operates on a right-of-way
through U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service land a
significant part of which is owned by the GCRy.
The Williams Depot is one of the few buildings in Williams that
has remained virtually unchanged in nearly 100 years. Listed
in the National Registers of Historic Places (NRHP), the Williams
Depot is the oldest poured concrete structure in Arizona. It
survived destruction by the Santa Fe Railroad as, according to
historians, it would have cost more to tear it down than pay
taxes on it.
Williams, the gateway to the Grand Canyon, boasts a colorful
past as a typical Western railroad town founded in 1882. It thrived
because of successful farming and lumber industries as well as
the railroad. At the turn of the last century, Williams had a
reputation as a rowdy frontier town, but now it has the distinction
of being the first community to place US Route 66 on the NRHP.
It also has the dubious distinction of being the first town bypassed
by Interstate 40 in 1984. Williams is not an upscale tourist
Mecca, but its character today is largely as I found it 40 years
ago when passing through on my way to southern California.
Every day before the train ride, local, colorful actors reenact
a gunfight skit in a make believe Old West town on the western
edge of the platform. Later that day these same cowboys "rob" the
returning train as part of the ongoing passenger entertainment.
Now it was time to get going! The train crew began to board
passengers. Coach, first class, dome car, club, and lounge services
are available. We selected the coach class for the two and a
quarter hour trip, and found it quite good. Each car has a resident "house
mother" as well as a traveling -- that is among the cars
-- guitarist. The "mother" tells stories about the
Canyon and answers dozens of questions, and the guitar man sings
and encourages group sing-alongs. For some, this train trip is
merely an easy way to reach the Grand Canyon and the entertainment
keeps boredom at bay. But as a rail fan, I was content enjoy
the train's motion and to watch and photograph the high plains
scenery and look out for wildlife.
The first passengers boarded their train on September 17, 1901,
and traveled through high desert plains and scrub forests, over
small arroyos, and into the dense ponderosa pine forests as they
neared the south rim. Before train travel, the only way to get
to the Grand Canyon was by horseback or an uncomfortable and
expensive 8-hour stagecoach ride from Flagstaff. The train provided
a much more pleasant ride and the $3.95 ticket was affordable.
The motivation for the GCRy was, not surprisingly, money, but
for a reason you may not suspect. Buckey O'Neil, an Arizona promoter,
entrepreneur and politician, realized in 1893 that mining in
Anita about 45 miles north of Williams could make money, and
a railroad would have made it easy to get the ore to the ATSF
mainline in Williams. After years of lobbying big city investment
houses, the Santa Fe and Grand Canyon Railroad began laying tracks
in 1898, and the ATSF finished the tracks all the way to the
south rim by 1901 after an ownership change. More money was eventually
made ferrying Canyon visitors than from hauling ore.
When we first visited the Grand Canyon in 1965, we drove from
southern California where we lived at the time. Automobiles still
account for the majority of tourist's transportation, but it's
estimated that each year the GCRy has kept more than 50,000 cars
outside the national park. A continuing problem at most popular
national parks has been too many cars for years. At the Grand
Canyon there is a railroad alternative -- the GCRy. According
to our tour bus driver, the National Park Service is considering
banning automobiles and using only buses and the train.
Arrival at the Canyon's south rim requires that the entire train
be turned on the wye before pulling into the Grand Canyon Depot.
When the train stopped we all piled out onto the platforms and
many, including us, sought out a bus for a tour of the south
rim and catered lunch at Bright Angel Lodge, one of the GC Village's
oldest buildings. The catered lunch was quite adequate and fueled
us for the continuing adventures ahead.
The Santa Fe Railroad and its partner, the Fred Harvey Company,
built an entire village on the south rim to service thousands
of annual visitors. Grand Canyon Depot, constructed in 1910,
was and still is located in the center of the fast paced village.
Modern tourists arriving at the newly restored log depot have
an authentic feel for what it was like to arrive at the Grand
Canyon in the early part of the 1900's. The GC Depot is only
one of three remaining log depots out of fourteen built in the
USA, and of these three it is the only one in which logs were
the primary structural material and the only one of its kind
serving an operating railroad.
Except for a brief period during WWII, at least one daily train
was scheduled to pull into the Grand Canyon Depot between 1901
and 1968. In the early, 1920's the first road connected Williams
and the Park enabling cars to compete with train service. Between
1927 and 1933 the balance shifted between train passengers and
automobiles. When the last scheduled train pulled into the GCD
in 1968, only three passengers were aboard.
Park visitors arriving by train have about three and a quarter
hours in which to tour the south rim. We chose to use the bus
tour as we hoped to cram as many sights and narration into the
available time. It turned out to be a good choice for us. Our
driver and tour guide was not only knowledgeable about the Canyon
and Village, but also a great storyteller. The morning overcast
had largely disappeared and the sun peeked out as we looked into
and marveled at the distant canyon vistas along the south rim.
Taking the south rim tour bus ensures that you will get back
to the train on time. In order to maintain a strict operating
schedule, the GCRy staff frequently reminded everyone to be on
time. The return trip featured fewer stories and less music so
we went to the lounge car for drinks at a table for two. The
lounge and day coach were both refurbished Harriman-style cars,
and reminiscent of an earlier era. I hadn't been on one of these
cars since riding Philadelphia commuter trains in the 1950's.
By the late 1980's the railroad was almost demolished for its
salvage value, but the Grand Canyon Railway owned by Max and
Thelma Biegert stopped the demolition work and began an extensive
restoration project. Decaying tracks and roadbed were restored,
the historic depots at each end of the line were subsequently
renovated, and old locomotives and rolling stock were rebuilt.
After twenty-one years, passenger service was restored to the
Grand Canyon National Park.
The Cataract Creek Gang robbed the train about two-thirds the
way back to Williams. This was the same bunch of rowdies who
staged the gunfight in the morning near the depot. Each of the
robbers "demanded" some change from the passengers
until Marshall John B. Goodmore showed up and "arrested" the
desperados. It was all in good fun, and it woke up many sleepy
people. By the time we arrived in Williams, every one was wide
awake and in fine spirits although a bit lighter in change.
It was nearly dusk but still light enough to see the GCRy rail
yards where many passenger cars await future restoration, and
the well-equipped shops capable of restoring steam engines with
their heavy machine tools. The tracks leading into the depot
parallel the BNSF right of way where in the morning a fast freight
roared through town.
After 14 successful operating years, the GCRy property will
be the future home of the Arizona State Railroad Museum. Max
and Thelma generously donated 15 acres of downtown Williams'
real estate, and the Museum will be designed along the lines
of the turntable and engine shop so as to highlight the state's
76 railroads. The proposed location is the actual site of the
ATSF's Williams roundhouse. It has direct access to the BSNF
mainline via the GCRy tracks. Such will expedite movement of
the Museum's display equipment.
We ended our day at the Williams depot and wrapped it up taking
more video shots of the Alcos idling in the twilight. The company's
steam engines run Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day Weekend,
and the Alco diesel locomotives run the remainder of the year.
A lot of happy travelers headed off into the parking lots to
continue their journeys or to the nearby Fray Marcus hotel for
their evening meal. Wherever they were headed each had a new
story to tell about their adventure aboard a historic train that
carried them to the awesome sights of the only natural wonder
on the North American continent.
A deal between the GCRy and Amtrak resulted in the Southwest
Chief stopping at Williams Junction. So if you want to do a great
rail fan tour, get on the Chief in either Los Angeles or Chicago
--- or at any stop in between -- and stopover in Williams for
one or more days. Amtrak Vacations as well as the Grand Canyon
Railway offer package tours that include overnight stays at the
El Tovar Hotel or Bright Angel Lodge in the Park and at the Fray
Marcos hotel at the GCRy Resort.
W. David Chambers, company president, says it best: "By
traveling aboard the Grand Canyon Railroad you are not only experiencing
an entertaining and historic journey, you are doing your part
to help preserve the pristine beauty of the Grand Canyon."
1. The Railway features multiple ALCO FPA-4 diesel locomotives
built in 1959. The FPA-4 model is unique as its longer design
accommodates a steam generator for heating the passenger cars.
2. The Train with steam billowing around the cars on a cool,
damp, November morning, is ready for it run to the Grand Canyon.
3. Engine 18 is an SC-4 class locomotive built in 1910 by the
American Locomotive Company (ALCO) in Pittsburgh, PA. It is
a 2-8-0 consolidation-type engine. Number 18 -- weighing in
at 160 tons -- made the re-inaugural run to the canyon on Sept.
17, 1989. The engine, now retired, is scheduled for future
4. Typical of the GCRy displays is this all-steel cupola caboose
in ATSF livery which was originally part of roster with more
than 900 similar cabooses.
5. The Fray Marcos hotel is the centerpiece of the GCRy resort
6. This south rim view of the Grand Canyon with the Colorado
River shining in the center was the reason traveled by the
7. Pappy, a member of the Cataract Creek Gang looks like he is
losing his revolver during the train "holdup."