A Grand Canyon Railway trip is a nostalgic journey into the country’s most famous natural wonder. Before there were paved roads and automobile access to Grand Canyon National Park, the Grand Canyon Railway made its first paid passenger journey to the South Rim in 1901. At the time, the 61-mile-long journey reportedly had a price tag of $3.95.
It was the Santa Fe Railroad, along with the Fred Harvey Company, that commissioned and built most of the historic structures that still exist along the South Rim. The branch line from Williams, AZ to the South Rim, was completed to provide access to the canyon. Operation of the railway as a passenger train failed in 1968 thanks to competition with automobiles, but continued operation as a freight train until 1974.
In 1988, the line was bought by a Phoenix, Arizona, couple, Max and Thelma Biegert. The railway was restored and in 1989 began operations as a separate company, independent of the Santa Fe. The first run of the restored railroad was on September 17, 1989, commemorating the September 17 debut of the original railroad.
Today, the railroad carries hundreds of passengers to and from the Canyon every day, totaling about 240,000 passengers a year. Notable passengers in the railway’s earlier days included Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Clark Gable, Doris Day, and others. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are among passengers who have enjoyed the railway in recent times.
The restored Santa Fe Railway Station in Williams serves the Grand Canyon Railway and is also home to a small railroad museum. The Grand Canyon Depot, owned by the National Park Service, remains the northern terminus for passengers of the line.
Riders are immersed in the history and culture as they travel to the Grand Canyon in restored 1920s vintage Harriman coaches and new 1950s climate-controlled coaches. Back in the day, President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir paid $3.95 to ride on the rails. Today, the Old West lives on daily with authentic characters staging a train robbery and musicians leading cowboy sing-alongs. Some of the masked cowboys play really accomplished people in real life like Dennis Shirley who was Ray Charles’ head photographer back in the day. Visitors can also take in Wild West Shootouts in the corral located near the Depot before their train departs.
Trains Powered on Vegetable Oil
What do French fries and the Grand Canyon Railway have in common?
Vegetable oil used to fry the popular side dish literally fuels the railway’s Locomotive No. 29 and No. 4960, also known as the French Fry Express. Collected from restaurants in the Grand Canyon, Phoenix and Williams, Ariz., where the 65-mile train ride to the Grand Canyon starts, the recycled oil emits 50 percent less carbon emissions than diesel fuel. In addition, passengers who take the train to and from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim help reduce vehicle pollution and traffic by an estimated 70,000 cars per year.
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Grand Canyon Railway
During the winter season (November! January), the line runs The Polar Express from Williams to the North Pole,‘ a station about 10 miles (20 km) north of town.