Few sounds in this world can tug at the heartstrings like the romantic wail of a train on its way west. Generations have come and gone listening to the train’s serenade, listening to the stories of how the West was won.
It wasn’t the cowboys and it wasn’t the cavalry, but the locomotive that finally conquered this great wilderness. And there’s no better example of hidden treasures revealed by the locomotive’s journey west than the Grand Canyon.
While the canyon’s potential was realized as early as the 1880s, the journey at the time was difficult to say the least. The remoteness of the area would have sealed its fate as merely a very deep hole in the earth marked on a map, had it not been for William Owen “Buckey” O’Neill and his grand visions of a railroad to the canyon.
O’Neill, who was mayor of Prescott at the time, owned several mineral claims and had built a substantial cabin on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. But while he’d found his wealth, he wasn’t able to unlock it from the canyon due to the high cost of transporting the ore. A man of action, he lobbied for nearly five years before securing the funding for the Railway.
On Sept. 17, 1901, O’Neill’s vision became a reality when the first steam train took passengers and supplies from Williams, Ariz., to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. And while O’Neill wasn’t there to see it for himself – having been killed while serving as a Rough Rider in the Spanish American War – his spirit was smiling as the steam rose through the forest en route to the Grand Canyon.
The Railway revolutionized the canyon, sharing its natural wonder with the general public. In its heyday, Grand Canyon Railway – then a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company – had two scheduled arrivals per day at the South Rim, but as many as six special trains might also arrive at the Grand Canyon in one day.
Notable passengers included President Theodore Roosevelt, President William Howard Taft, John Muir, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, King Paul and Queen Fredericka of Greece, President Dwight David Eisenhower, Clark Gable, Candice Bergen, Jimmy Durante, Doris Day, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater and Arizona Governor Rose Mofford.
It was the preferred method of travel until the advent of the automobile. And as America fell in love with the automobile, the locomotive’s romantic wail faded like an Arizona sunset.
The final rays of golden sunlight disappeared June 30, 1968 as Train No. 14, a diesel locomotive pulling only one baggage car and one coach car, left Grand Canyon Depot with just three people aboard. Beginning the 65-mile trek to Williams, the engineer gave the horn two short blasts heard only by those aboard and canyon wildlife. No one was present to send the train off, or to celebrate the contributions the Railway had made. As the last passenger train traveled out of sight, the tracks grew quiet and stayed that way for nearly 20 years.
The tracks began experiencing minor rumblings again in the late 1980s. Investors came and went, promising restoration then fleeing when financing went awry. The town of Williams was struggling, but still daring to dream that the Railway would return one day and with it, rebuild the small town celebrated as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon®.
It wasn’t until a determined crop duster and his wife entered the scene that the Railway had a chance of coming back to life. Reaching deep into their pockets and tapping all the resources available to them, Max and Thelma Biegert dedicated everything, including an initial $15 million, to reinstate train service to the Grand Canyon.
Pulling together a talented team of people including steam locomotive experts, Max and Thelma went to work restoring the dilapidated Williams and Grand Canyon Depots as well as the 65 miles of weather-beaten railroad track. The team rebuilt washout areas and bridges, replacing 30,000 railroad ties and countless more rails, beams and spikes.
Their hard work paid off, and on Sept. 17, 1989 – 88 years to the day from the first train to the canyon – Max and Thelma Biegert brought the powerful pull of the steam locomotive back to Grand Canyon National Park.
More than 10,000 people and dignitaries arrived in Williams to celebrate the return of the Railway, with more gathered to greet the passengers arriving at Grand Canyon Depot. It seemed as though the whole world recognized the importance of returning train service to the canyon.
Grand Canyon Railway gained momentum with each passing trip to the canyon, growing into the operation it is today. Providing daily service and transporting more than 225,000 passengers to the Grand Canyon each year (more than 2.5 million since 1989), the Railway is much more than an alternative mode of transportation.
The simple act of returning train service restored an integral part of the Grand Canyon’s history. The wail of the historic locomotives traveling the rails today, shares the story of how the canyon came to be.
No, the West was not won by cowboys or cavalry, but by the train and the people whose vision of grandeur was matched only by the Grand Canyon itself.