In 1901, more than a decade before Arizona became a state, the fabled Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway opened a 64-mile branch line from the small frontier town of Williams to the South Rim of America's largest, most spectacular Grand Canyon.
Along with the Fred Harvey Company, which pioneered large-scale visitation to the Southwest, the railroad also built El Tovar Hotel, spectacularly located at the Grand Canyon's edge. It was a symbiotic relationship: The train provided easy access to El Tovar Hotel, and the hotel offered luxurious accommodations to early 20th-century adventurers. The legions of travelers who made the journey included five presidents, numerous foreign dignitaries, movie stars and artists, with the rich and famous always staying at El Tovar Hotel.
John Muir, the great preservationist and Sierra Club founder, complimented the railroad on its minimal environmental impact. But 20th-century travelers didn't care much about the environment. As automobile travel captured people's imaginations, train travel lost favor and ridership dropped as people preferred motoring to the Grand Canyon's rim. Passenger service was discontinued in 1968, freight service ended six years later and the track through the pine forest of the Kaibab Plateau was abandoned.
Restoring the Railway
Not for long, though. Max and Thelma Bigert bought the dormant railroad, restored the tracks and purchased and refurbished classic rolling stock. The Grand Canyon Railway started service again on September 17, 1989, 88 years to the day after its inaugural passenger run. The Bigerts like to say that they put the train back on track.
In peak season, accommodating private vehicles has required (to paraphrase the Joni Mitchell song) paving paradise and putting in parking lots. Grand Canyon National Park officials have been grappling with ways to lessen traffic and pollution from auto emissions by limiting vehicular access and operating an in-park shuttle system.
More than 225,000 people now ride Grand Canyon Railway to or from the Grand Canyon rim every year, which means fewer cars and fewer parking lots – and therefore another step toward the preservation of paradise. John Muir would approve.
Preserving Nature – and History
Early in 2007, the Bigerts sold Grand Canyon Railway to Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Grand Canyon National Park's leading concessionaire. Today, the train continues steaming along year-round on the two-and-a-half-hour journey. It is not only environmentally sound transportation but also a trip back in time. Beautiful vintage cars are staffed by conductors in railroad uniforms for a trip back into the last century, the heyday of train travel, with enhancements from this one.
Each car features entertainers who sing, joke, strum guitars or play other instruments and tell terrific tales, tall and otherwise, accompanied by the clickety-clack of the wheels. There's onboard snack service and the inevitable gift shop. About midway through the trip, there's a staged train robbery starring ""robbers"" and the ""marshal"" who apprehends them. In winter, the Polar Express runs, complete with hot cocoa and Santa Claus.
The Grand Canyon Railway offers six classes of service, so a ride into the past can be a luxury indulgence, an economical experience or something in between. Packages including roundtrip transportation, accommodations and meals are available. What a way to experience paradise!
(Updated by the Arizona Office of Tourism - 2009)