Grand Canyon Railway Chugs to Past and Back

<i> Stevens is a free-lance writer living in Prescott, Ariz. </i>

Mountain men in buckskins, coonskin caps and carrying flintlock rifles stood menacingly on the platform, looking as though they were guarding against marauding Indians.

Women in Harvey Girl costumes and men with pencil-thin, twirled mustaches posed for photographers. A turn-of-the-century, jazz band played under cool skies at the 6,800-foot elevation, and a 50-year-old ice cream wagon with liveried driver served patrons close by the railroad tracks.

I was aboard last spring when the Grand Canyon Railway chugged softly away from the station on the initial run of its first full season. The train was pulled by an 80-year-old steam locomotive--which led five 80-passenger rail cars--and was ready to depart the station at 9:30 a.m., right on the dot.


A scene from pre-World War II America? Not on your life.

It was happening here in Williams, Ariz., where the big news was that the trains were returning to the Grand Canyon, complete with the nostalgic trappings that capture the hearts of rail buffs everywhere.

It’s a getaway experience worth a drive to Williams, a small town on the old cross-country Santa Fe line, just 64 miles--by rail--south of the Grand Canyon, and 170 miles north of Phoenix.

The Grand Canyon’s South Rim offers one of the world’s best-known views into the great gorge and down a mile to the Colorado River. There are hotels, restaurants, campgrounds, food stores, Indian curio shops, a visitors center and museum and nature trails along the edge of the rim. There, visitors can book mule trips or take hikes into the canyon.

Williams blossomed originally because of the railroad. In 1901, the easy way to get to the canyon’s popular South Rim was by rail. Passengers would overnight in Williams and catch the morning train, spending the day gazing into the red depths of the Colorado River’s creation before returning on the evening train.

The rail run was discontinued, however, in 1968, a victim of competing buses and automobiles. Later there were attempts to revive the line, but all failed.

But last year, investors pooled funds, purchased ancient rolling stock--three steam locomotives and passenger cars--and began restoration.

The brought-back-to-life, privately owned Grand Canyon Railway replaced much of the old track and its rotten wooden ties and bridges and refurbished the 1908 Williams rail depot, a place steeped in history. It was here that Fred Harvey’s Harvey Girls first opened the West to decent food and lodging for travelers.

When the line reopened on Sept. 17, 1989, 14,000 passengers boarded in a few weeks before the winter shutdown. In 1990, the line carried about 100,000 passengers.

The Grand Canyon rail depot, just yards from the canyon rim, has undergone a face lift. It now offers the pleasures that the Williams depot extends to travelers: hot food, fountain treats (much like those delivered from the old ice cream wagon) and an extensive gift shop that leans heavily toward railroad-oriented souvenirs.

More important to the people in this area, the Williams-to-Grand Canyon project--which could become an $80-million investment if all development plans materialize--is that the train is running again. Planned are hotels and a theme park at the Williams end of the trip.

The train, carrying 400 passengers, makes the Grand Canyon depot in 2 1/2 hours. Passengers have four hours to explore the South Rim before the train returns to Williams.

It’s a journey cloaked in history. Steam engine No. 18, one of two restored engines, was built in 1910 by the American Locomotive Co. The passenger cars, each more than half a century old, are Harriman cars. They, like engine Nos. 18 and 29, have been completely redone.

No. 18 is a glossy black engine. Passengers are thrilled as steam shoots from side vents when it pulls away from Williams station for the trip north to the canyon. The Harriman cars, five on each train, are painted a dark green. Their seats have been reupholstered and they gleam inside and out.

Attendants in turn-of-the-century costume are on duty in each car, most of them Northern Arizona University students from nearby Flagstaff. Along the way they serve soft drinks, snacks and take box-lunch orders.

All in all, the service is fast, efficient and the young people are enthusiastic. It gets even better when a trumpeter, a tuba player and a fiddler from the jazz band play for passengers. Along the way, they spend 15 or 20 minutes in each car, serenading and encouraging sing-alongs.

The train rolls past cattle ranches on the high northern Arizona plateau country. To the east are the San Francisco Peaks, the state’s highest land mass. To the south is Bill Williams Mountain, named (as was the town) for the famed mountain man who led parties west about 150 years ago.

From chaparral to pinon to true pines, the train chugs north, literally stopping traffic. Onlookers gather along the route. Motorists hastily brake their cars and dash to the sides of the track, cameras in hand.

Drivers also stop (illegally, most likely) on Interstate 40 to gawk when the train passes under the freeway. Parents hold their children aloft to see the old train go by as entire families wave passengers and crew on their way.

Those aboard often say they feel a sense of living history, a sense of belonging among pioneers past, with the thrill of living in yesteryear.


Driving to the Train

Getting there: From Los Angeles, drive east on Interstate 10 or Highway 91 and join Interstate 15 near San Bernardino. Then drive north on Interstate 15 to Barstow and connect with Interstate 40, heading east across the California desert into Arizona. Interstate 40 continues to Williams. From Los Angeles, the drive is about 400 miles.

What it costs: The Grand Canyon Railway’s round trip is $55 per person, $50 for seniors and youths 13-16. For children 12 and under, it’s $23 on weekends and $11.50 weekdays.

When it runs: The train runs Wednesday through Sunday until June 1, when it runs every day through September. In October, the schedule goes back to Wednesday through Sunday. In November, the train runs only Friday through Sunday, and in December Saturdays and Sundays only. The line closes in January, resuming in February.

For more information: Contact the Grand Canyon Railway, 518 E. Bill Williams Ave., Williams, Ariz. 86046, (800) 843-8724, or the Arizona Office of Tourism, 1100 W. Washington St., 1100-A, Phoenix 85007, (602) 542-8687.