With a history spanning more than 7 million years, the Grand Canyon has long been a source of wonder for prospectors, explorers, and tourists, but travel to and from the Canyon wasn’t always as easy as it is now. Before the inception of the Grand Canyon Railway in the early 1900s, it took an hours-long, bumpy stagecoach ride to reach the Rim. Nowadays, we have many options for getting to the Grand Canyon, including airplane, bus, personal automobile, and of course, by train.
Throughout its century-long history, the Grand Canyon Railway has been helping shuttle valuable goods, livestock, and people to and from the Rim. Today, the Railway functions solely as a mode of transportation for travelers, but much like the Grand Canyon, the Railway has a long, layered history. Let’s take a closer look at the story behind this historic mainstay.
Early History of the Railway
Built in the late 1800s to transport ore from the Anita mines located 45 miles north of Williams, the line that would eventually spawn the Grand Canyon Railway passed through Williams, AZ on its way from Chicago to Los Angeles. When Buckey O’Neill (sheriff of Yavapai County, mayor of Prescott, prospector, and later one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders) realized that money could be made mining the Grand Canyon, he travelled east to enlist investors.
To gain the interest of the Santa Fe Pacific Railroad (a major player in the development of the Grand Canyon Railway), Buckey sent ore samples and spoke about the Canyon’s potential for tourism. O’Neill eventually gained the support he needed from local investors and the Santa Fe Railroad, and the Grand Canyon Railroad Company was incorporated in 1897. Ownership of the Grand Canyon Railroad Company changed hands many times in the early years of the Railway, and eventually landed with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, who took over and completed the track in 1901.
Let’s pick things up from there…
On September 17, 1901, the first passengers arrive at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim aboard the train from Williams, AZ. The 64-mile ride cost $3.95, replacing the $15, 8-hour stagecoach ride from Flagstaff. For decades, the train would carry more than just passengers—it also transported ore, construction supplies, water, and until 1926, ranch stock.
The Santa Fe Railroad hires the Fred Harvey Company to manage hotels and restaurants on the Rim and in Williams, AZ. The Fred Harvey Company hires pioneering architect Mary Colter to design and build many structures on the Rim, including Hopi House, Lookout Studio, and Bright Angel Lodge.
Learn more about Mary Colter’s signature style.
The Grand Canyon’s flagship hotel, El Tovar, opens on the Rim, just up the hill from the Grand Canyon Railway depot.
The Santa Fe Railway designs and builds the historic Fray Marcos Hotel and Williams Depot.
On February 26, 1919, the Grand Canyon National Park is established by an act of Congress.
The first good road to the Grand Canyon is built, making it easier to travel to the Rim.
The first year more people arrive at the Grand Canyon by automobile than by train.
Diesel locomotives begin travelling the Grand Canyon line.
The last steam train travels to the Grand Canyon, soon to be replaced by more economical diesel locomotives.
The Fray Marcos Hotel closes to the public, but the Williams Depot continues to service the East-West mainline, as well as Williams-Grand Canyon train traffic.
In July of 1968, three passengers travel on the last regularly-scheduled train service to the Grand Canyon. Ridership had been steadily declining thanks to the growing popularity of the automobile and the romance of the “road trip”.
The Grand Canyon train depot closes nearly a year after the discontinuation of passenger train service. The Santa Fe Railroad continues to use the line for freight until 1974.
The Santa Fe maintenance crew and field engineer permanently abandon the Williams train station facility.
After a couple of failed attempts to resurrect the Railway, Max and Thelma Biegert announce their successful bid on January 10, 1989. The Biegerts’ plan includes redeveloping the railway route by rebuilding decaying tracks, restoring the historic depots at each end, and rehabilitating both the Fray Marcos Hotel and the Williams Depot. On September 17, the Williams Depot reopens under the Biegerts’ ownership under the name Grand Canyon Railway.
The reconditioning of two vintage 1906 and 1910 steam engines begins. Each engine requires 8,000-10,000 hours to rebuild.
The Grand Canyon Depot reopens and begins welcoming Grand Canyon Railway trains in July.
The Grand Canyon Railway carries more than 105,000 passengers per year, reducing vehicle traffic to the Rim by nearly 40,000 cars.
The Grand Canyon Railway begins daily passenger service and reintroduces vintage diesel locomotives.
Steam locomotive No. 4960 makes its first run on the Grand Canyon line after being fully restored. Restoration requires more than $1.5 million and 80,000 hours.
On October 1, Reginald and Pat Barker become the 1 millionth passengers to ride the Grand Canyon Railway.
The Grand Canyon Railway is placed on the National Register of Historic Places. On August 2, Amtrak service adds a stop at Williams Junction.
The Grand Canyon Railway begins running a special Polar Express train to the “North Pole” during the holiday season.
The Grand Canyon Depot restoration project is complete.
On July 21, Catherine Harris becomes to the two-millionth passenger. Steam locomotive No. 29 hits the tracks after an extensive $1 and 26,000 hour restoration process. The railway also carries more than 225,000 passengers in 2004, reducing automobile traffic to the Rim by 10%.
The Grand Canyon Railway is purchased from the Biegerts by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the nation’s largest park management company.
Xanterra discontinues use of steam locomotives, in line with their commitment to the environment and sustainability. Locomotives No. 29 and 4960 are placed on display at the Williams Depot platform.
Steam locomotive No. 4960 resumes service, this time powered by waste vegetable oil.
The Railway Today
Today, the Grand Canyon Railway offers daily round trips to the Grand Canyon from Williams, AZ, with multiple classes to choose from depending on your budget and travel preferences. Complete with a mock train robbery staged by actors dressed as bandits during your return trip, the Grand Canyon Railway offers a unique Old West experience that will transport you back in time—and to one of the nation’s most iconic landscapes.
Learn more about the Grand Canyon Railway.