Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Grand Canyon Railway

by Jennifer Uhlarik

Last month, I shared some of the amazing history of Grand Canyon National Park, which I learned on my summer road trip to the park. This month, I thought I’d share about The Grand Canyon Railway. It provides a great way to see an absolutely awe-inspiring piece of nature and one of our national treasures.

After the end of the Civil War, more and more people traveled to the West, but the journey was long and difficult. It became somewhat easier when, in May of 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was complete. In the decades after this milestone, railway lines began to crisscross the vast western states and territories, and a main line eventually connected Chicago, Illinois to Las Angeles, California, passing through a little place called Williams, Arizona. Williams is a mere 64 miles from the South Rim of Grand Canyon, and there was a rail line that turned north from Williams toward the iconic landmark. The Anita mines also sat about 45 miles north of Williams.

William "Buckey" O'Neill
In the late 1800’s, Buckey O’Neill, sheriff of Yavapai County, saw that there was a need for a rail line
from Williams up to the mines in order to make it easier to move the heavy ore. He went to New York and got the support of the investment firm, Lombard, Goode, and Company, which in turn began negotiations with the Santa Fe Pacific Railroad to build a train line north of the town. To sweeten the deal, O’Neill and the investment firm talked up the awesome beauty and possibilities for tourism of the Canyon. O’Neill also courted local investors for the project, and by 1897, the Santa Fe and Grand Canyon Railroad Company was born. Construction of the new line began immediately and was completed in 1901, with the first passengers traveling to Grand Canyon via the train on September 17, 1901.


Passengers on the inaugural ride to Grand Canyon.
Train Depot at
Grand Canyon's South Rim
The Santa Fe Railroad put much effort into developing the South Rim into a wonderful mecca for visitors. Employing the services of a female designer by the name of Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, they built several iconic hotels and lodges which are still in use today. In addition, they hired the Fred Harvey company to manage the hotels and restaurants to make the visitors’ experiences top notch.

(c) Jennifer Uhlarik


But as so often happens, time marched on. Automobiles became more accessible for American families. With the opening of Route 66 in November 1926, people found an easy and scenic way to travel the country. Road trips grew in popularity, which had a very negative effect on train travel. Eventually, the Santa Fe Railroad was forced to make a difficult decision. Since so many travelers were choosing their own vehicles rather than the rails, the company stopped providing rail service to Grand Canyon in 1968.


You’d think that this was a very sad ending to a piece of American history, but there’s good news. Eighty-eight years to the day after the first passenger train carried visitors to the national park, The Grand Canyon Railway made another “first trip.” Entrepreneurs Max and Thelma Biegert realized that this important piece of history was about to disappear completely when a company began pulling up the tracks to salvage the materials. In a last-minute decision, the Biegerts bought the Grand Canyon Railway, stopped the salvage attempts, and declared that the railroad would once again provide passenger service to the South Rim. They rebuilt the tracks, restored the train engine and cars, and reopened for business on September 17, 1989, twenty-one years after their last trip.

Engine of Grand Canyon Railway train.
(c) Jennifer Uhlarik
Today, the train makes daily trips to and from the Canyon. You can catch the train at the original Williams depot, which sits beside the stylish Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. To add to its historic charm, they provide a short Old West reenactment before you board the train for your two-hour ride into the park. Some of the period characters come along to provide musical entertainment for the journey. It truly is worth the time to experience this little piece of Americana.






It’s your turn. Have you ever ridden a train? Where and when? Did you enjoy it? If you haven’t, would you like to? Where would you like to go?


Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and finaled in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and four fur children.



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Ride into adventures alongside nine determined women of yesteryear whose acts of compassion and bravery attract male attention. Marcy helps displaced Indians. Emmy tends wounds at Fort Snelling. Ronnie stows away on a cattle drive. Daisy disguises herself as a Pony Express rider. Elinor becomes an abolitionist. Mae tames wild horses. Hannah gets help for accident victims. Lucy’s curiosity unnerves criminals. Kate nurses soldiers on the battlefield. Will real dangers douse the sparks of love?

12 comments:

  1. This was very interesting. I've never been on a train before and never really gave it much thought. A cross-country trip would be nice.

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    1. Thank you so much for adding your thoughts! I've taken several train rides since my childhood, but most were like the Grand Canyon Railway--a few hours on a train to see a tourist area or park. The only longer train ride I took was when I was a child, and my mom took me and my older brothers on an Amtrak train. That was quite an experience.

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  2. I've ridden on a train several times. The one that was the most memorable was riding one in Israel when I lived there. I finally got to see the Grand Canyon, about five years ago. It's hard to explain how impressive it is.

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    1. Oh, Vickie, the train in Israel sounds like it would be quite interesting! And yes, words can't describe the Grand Canyon adequately!

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  3. Very interesting post. I remember when I was 5 years old we traveled by train from Maryland to Florida for my uncles funeral. That is the only time I have been on a train.
    Blessings, Tina

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    1. Mrs Tina, not the most fun reason to travel by train, but at least you've gotten to experience it. My one cross-country train ride was when I was a child also.

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  4. My husband and I love trains. :-) We love taking train rides.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Melissa! When we were planning our summer vacation this year, we really wanted to do a cross-country train ride, but from Florida, you have to travel several states north before you can go west, which was where we wanted to be. Not very cost-effective for us. Perhaps another time, though! ;)

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  5. Interesting post. I've only ridden on a train once going to Chicago from central Illinois. It was a great experience and the best way to travel to the windy city.

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    1. I was born in Illinois but moved from there when I was young. If and when I ever plan to get back that way, maybe we'll consider a train ride! ;)

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  6. I've never been on a passenger train before. I jumped in a boxcar when I was 7 and rode a few miles into town (I was with some older neighbor kids) It was fun.
    I would have loved to take a trip on the American Orient Express. It went through the south all the way to the Canadian Rockies. I'd still like to take a trip through the mountains.

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    1. Hi Andrea. Thanks for stopping by! When I lived in Wisconsin in my childhood, we had a railroad track that bordered our back yard. I recall seeing the neighbor kids climbing on the trains and riding short distances, but I was always much too afraid to do so--my parents had put the fear of God in me about that. LOL And the American Orient Express sounds like it would've been quite an experience!

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