Shootouts, Robberies, and Cattle-Rustling
Keeping the Wild West Alive on the Grand Canyon Railway
Like clockwork at 9 a.m. 364 days a year (except Christmas), tempers flare and a friendly discussion about breakfast gets heated outside the Grand Canyon Railway Depot in Williams, Ariz.
Witnesses watching from bleachers appear delighted at the action taking place against the backdrop of a faux Old West town with the requisite Saloon, Livery, Diner, and, of course, Jail.
When it’s over, there’s reason for applause. After all, the good guys always win. Nobody gets hurt. And the bad guys get thrown in the hoosegow. (Though somehow, they manage to reappear the next day for a repeat performance.)
The morning altercation between the motley train-robbing, cattle-rustling, and all-around-bad-behaving Cataract Creek Gang and the town marshal is just one of the storylines integrated into the Grand Canyon Railway’s excursion between Williams, a real-life Old West town, and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
The Western entertainment continues on the train with cowboy singers and musicians strolling car to car, enticing passengers into sing-alongs. Train-themed songs and old-timey Western standards (think Gene Autry, Tom Mix, and Roy Rogers) are favored. The Marshall works the train, keeping an eye out for any troublemakers or train robbers.
And sometimes, Williams’ current real-life mayor and former sheriff, John W. Moore, climbs on board to join passengers. Together, they’re doing more than just traveling to one of the scenic Wonders of the World.
They’re taking a ride through history.
With his dandy russet silk vest, striped wool pants, and big-brimmed cowboy hat (white, naturally), you’d be hard-pressed to identify Moore as a 21st-century businessman and public servant.
He founded Wild West Adventures, which provides the onboard and pre-trip entertainment for the Grand Canyon Railway experience, in 1989 when the long-dormant train was once again hitting the rails. The then-governor of Arizona was on the train and Moore approached her security detail with the idea of staging a train robbery by an Old West-style gang. They balked. And so Moore rounded up state police and local sheriff’s deputies to do the deed.
A tradition was born and the Grand Canyon Railway has been held up on return trips ever since.
In character, Moore’s alter ego is John B. Goodmore, authentic star pinned to his chest and a .45 Colt Peacemaker (“the gun that won the West”) holstered at his hip. (The gun is fake, he later acknowledges.)
As the train travels north through high desert studded with scrub cedar, the rail-thin, resplendently mustachioed Moore and his cadre work the train cars, to the delight of passengers.
“Ridin’ this fancy train is nice,” he says, sidling up to one woman. “Ten years ago, I had to take a dusty old stagecoach to the canyon. By horseback, it’d take me 12 hours.”
Indeed, the train is comfortable and commodious with fresh fruit, soft drinks, and pastries set out in the first-class, observation dome, luxury dome, and luxury parlor cars. Daily drink specials are mixed by bar attendants, and on premium classes of service there’s a champagne toast on the afternoon return trip to Williams.
On both legs of the journey, passengers can sit back and take in broad vistas, including the majestic San Francisco Peaks to the east. The tracks cut through wide-open ranchland, where you might see cowboys rounding up cattle for branding, just as they did a hundred years ago. Keep an eye out for prong-horned antelope, elk, and maybe even an endangered California condor.
As the train nears the canyon, the entertainers work the crowd. In a coach car, the passengers are belting out Ring of Fire, to guitar accompaniment. An accordion player entertains in another. And in the rear luxury parlor car, guests sit back in their plush seats, facing a fiddle player wearing a black cowboy hat and a pair of wicked-looking spears.
Launching into an enthusiastic rendition of the Orange Blossom Special, he announces:
“This is your last chance to dance before we hit the Grand Canyon!”
For travel experiences available from Xanterra Parks & Resorts and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.
Written by: Jayne Clark