James McCommons: Grand Canyon Railway Offers Glimpse of the Past


The bustle in the RV park outside of Williams, Ariz., began at daybreak — kids skidding bikes inches from our tent, parents in pajamas flipping pancakes, and everyone slamming doors and packing gear for an early start to the canyon.We, too, were on a Great American road trip, touring the interior West, stopping at national parks and camping next to the interstates, where we fell asleep each night hearing the hum of the all-night trucks.

But this morning, my three sons and I were off the road and on the rails, catching a train to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, reaching this iconic landscape the way millions of Americans did before roads penetrated the desert and drive-through tourism became the norm at national parks. The Grand Canyon Railway runs 65 miles between Williams and Grand Canyon Village on the south rim. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (Santa Fe for short) abandoned passenger service on this branch line in 1968. In the 1980s, a wealthy Phoenix couple bought the right of way, rebuilt track and rehabbed the old depots. In 1989, the railway got under way with steam locomotives, but the current owner, Xanterra, which manages restaurants and hotels within several national parks, mainly uses diesel-electric locomotives to pull restored passenger cars.

Depot dates to 1908

It’s undeniably a tourist railway, with entertainment for families and vintage equipment for rail fans. When we arrived in Williams, the rail fans already were out in force, stalking the tracks with cameras, photographing the train and the historic depot built in 1908.

It was here that celebrities, presidents, potentates and average Americans debarked from the Santa Fe’s mainline to switch to the canyon train. They could stay at the Harvey House, a hotel operated by restaurant entrepreneur Fred Harvey. He opened eating houses all along the Santa Fe network in the 19th century, bringing fine cuisine to rail travelers accustomed to deplorable dining. The Harvey House now serves as the gift shop, and Xanterra has put up a new, retro-looking railroad hotel.

The day began with a Wild West show next to the depot. A shootout staged in a faux corral framed by plywood fronts of a Western town and bleachers for the tourists, it sounds hokey. But the cowboy actors thankfully did it tongue in cheek, including a mortally wounded hombre, who, before collapsing in the dust, sidestepped a pile of fresh horse dung. As we watched, the train idled nearby; outside each car, white-gloved attendants awaited their passengers.

We were in the cheap seats aboard a 1950s-era coach –one of 30 owned by the railway. The inside of the coach was all steel and leather of a sort of utilitarian, bulletproof construction. (Picture bench seats on a school bus.) For twice the price, you can upgrade to a coach with reclining seats, bigger windows and complimentary refreshments.

Coaches fun, noisy

For folks willing to a pay a premium, the train offered dome cars with upper-level bubbles that allow passengers to see in all directions and luxury observation-parlor cars with chairs and couches, a bar and an open-air platform on the rear of the train. Children younger than 15 are segregated to the coaches, however, and our car had an atmosphere akin to a noisy school trip with chaperoning adults. Generally, however, it was fun.

Leaving Williams, the train swayed and rolled to the north, crossing Interstate 40 and then the transcontinental mainline of the BNSF Railway, born in 1996 when the Santa Fe merged with the Burlington Northern.

Like other big Western railroads in the late 1800s, the Santa Fe promoted the establishment of national parks on its line. In 1901, it built the branch to the canyon and, four years later in partnership with the Fred Harvey Co., erected El Tovar Hotel on the south rim. Until then, visiting the canyon had been a rustic adventure, but the railroad made it stylish and comfortable, and the public loved the experience until the coming of roads and automobiles. Although the Grand Canyon Railway today carries 200,000 passengers annually, most tourists still reach the south rim from I-40 via Route 65.

Wildlife aplenty

For a few miles, the train paralleled the road, and I looked over to a string of RVs, cars and minivans topped with luggage carriers headed north, but then the tracks veered into the emptiness of the Colorado Plateau. Out in the dry grasslands and scrub brush, we spied prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, turkey vultures and hawks. Blue-black mountain ranges serrated the horizon. Puffy clouds passed overhead, and their shadows crept across the high desert.

Due to curves and grades that reach 3 percent (steep for a train), it doesn’t exceed 40 mph. A one-way trip takes two hours and 45 minutes, but then speed isn’t the point; it’s about scenery and entertainment. Folk singers –including a Navajo man who sang in his native language –passed through the train, telling jokes and making up songs for the kids.

Our attendant functioned as both historical docent and consultant. She passed out water, teased the kids and as we neared Grand Canyon Village, went around to each passenger and offered advice on walking paths and shuttle buses.

After pulling into the log- and wood-framed Grand Canyon depot, we had just four hours to gawk at the canyon, take too many pictures, buy postcards, eat a lunch and get a peek at El Tovar. Xanterra, which absorbed the Fred Harvey Co. in the 1960s, also owns the hotel. Many passengers combine the train trip with an overnight stay at El Tovar. And though it’s a bit pricey and some rooms are small, no one ever complains about the view. The front porch sits just 100 feet from the rim.

Hombres are back

We stayed off the shuttle buses, stuck to the walking paths and still made it as far as the Yavapai Observation Station, one of the best panoramas on the south rim. After all the hiking, though, and time in the sun, my kids were ready for the air conditioning of the train. The ride back was quieter with some of the passengers — especially young children — dozing in their seats. About 20 miles out from Williams, the train slowed, and we looked out to see that morning’s gang of Wild West hombres all lined up on horses with kerchiefs pulled up to their noses –train-robber style.

Two spurred their horses to a gallop and chased the train. The bandits came through the coaches with guns pulled, asking kids for their allowance money and joking with the adults. The sheriff chased them off and then came back to reassure passengers, “Folks, I have good news,” he said, pausing for the punch line. “I just saved a lot of money on my car insurance.”

Read the full article at The Oregonian.

James McCommons is the author of Waiting On A Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service – A Year Spent Riding Across America

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