What's now the Grand Canyon Railway started in the late 1890s as the Santa Fe & Grand Canyon Railroad, spearheaded by a guy oddly known as William Owen "Buckey" O'Neill and funded by the investment house Lombard, Goode, and Company. Publicly, it was justified as a mining branch to the Francis Mining District, near Anita station (about milepost 53). Here, copper ore had been found that assayed out higher than anything else found in the state - up to sixty five percent copper. Privately, however, the potential was realized as a tourist hauler. However, first and foremost was the mining, as that's where the perceived profit would come from. Thus, by 15-Mar-1900, the line was completed using poor grading, light (52 and 56 pound) rail, and two leased Santa Fe steamers. This gave them 53 miles of main, along with yard trackage and the 3 mile spur at Anita. The line provided access to the mining district, with some 10 unconstructed miles to go to the Canyon rim itself. Unfortunately, the capital wasn't yet available to complete the branch for its secondary purpose - tourism.
The Francis District mining boom quickly turned to a mining bust, however. Most of the ore deposits were near the surface, with the deepest vein only going a bit over 500 feet down. Basically, the guesses at vast riches beneath the surface based on surface minerals were all dead, flat wrong. Combined with various other problems, such as a Santa Fe-induced "water shortage", the SF&GC was in dire financial straits. By 5-Sep-1900, the line was bankrupt and in the hands of the courts. As everyone expected, the road's assets were sold to the Santa Fe on 15-Aug-1901, who promptly reformed it as the Grand Canyon Railway Company, a separate company, but firmly in the pocket and under the protection of the Santa Fe itself.
By the Santa Fe purchase, nearly all the originally-forecasted mining traffic was gone, with the last major copper interest closing up shop a few years later 1905. The most logical thing was to go after the secondary goal - tourism. Using the might of the parent road, the tracks were complete to the Canyon a month after the purchase, with a whole laundry list of upgrades planned after that. The first through passenger run was on 17-Sep-1901, keeping a roughly three hour schedule each way.
Over the next seventy years, tourism was the driving force behind the line. The railroad was instrumental in setting up facilities on the South Rim to make it a tourist destination. The first of these, the El Tovar Hotel, was designed and built by the ATSF and the Fred Harvey Company, famed operators of the Harvey Houses along the Santa Fe's routes. Opened in 1905, it continues as one of the premier hotels of the National Park Service today. They went on, building infrastructure such as the water facilities and the powerhouse, as well as more well known structures, like the Phantom Ranch and the Hopi House. In 1916, Congress finally got around to setting up the Grand Canyon as a National Park, assuring a booming tourist industry for years to come.
The line was not without other business, however. The Saginaw and Manistee Lumber Company operated a vast network of logging lines stretching east from the Grand Canyon line at Apex. Starting in 1928, the company built dozens and dozens of miles of track through the Kaibab National Forest, mostly to the east of what is now AZ 180. Two Baldwin 2-6-0s and a Shay (road numbers 2,3, and 4, respectively) would haul strings of log cars out to the Santa Fe interchange, where a local Santa Fe job would haul them to the mill in Williams and then return the empty cars for more. A short eight years later, the logging lease was exhausted, and the line was torn up. What wasn't worth reuse or selling was burned and scrapped on site. Locomotives 3 & 4 are reported to have lasted until 1941 before being cut up. 2 lasted a while longer, but was scrapped sometime during World War II. Also, supplies inbound to the Canyon rim (water and fuel), as well as livestock (cattle and sheep) and rock (sand and gravel) made up most of the rest of the traffic through the 1960s. Some amount of uranium ore was hauled out of the Orphan Mine between the late 1950s and 1969. The mine was actually located in the Park, just west of the modern South Rim facilities.
WWII brought the first time that passenger service shut down on the line. With personal travel curtailed, the last scheduled runs being on 29-Sep-1942. Nearly four years would pass for the Grand Canyon railway while the war raged. Once the war had ended, though, the line reopened for passenger service at the end of May 1946. In the last two weeks of July 1953, the line would see its heaviest service ever. During that period, some 20,000 Boy Scouts rode the rails to the Canyon in some 53 special trains, composed of 669 railcars. Unfortunately, despite the booming numbers, that rubber-tired nemesis of passenger rail was making inroads. Even by 1927, the number of passengers coming in by car was outstripping the railroad. By the 1950s, with automobiles everywhere and the road system improving quickly, days were numbered for the Grand Canyon passenger trains. In 1967, passenger levels dropped to a little of 4600 riders for the season, and the decision was made to discontinue service. On 30-Jul-1968, ATSF 730 lead the last passenger train, consisting of a baggage car and a coach, to the South Rim of the Canyon and back. Some sixty-seven years of nearly continuous tourist hauling came to a close, most believed forever, but some limited specials and freight traffic continued. Then, on 20-Jun-1974, the rails went completely silent. ATSF 3402 and 3388 went to retrieve a few gons full of recovered scrap track material. With their arrival back at Williams, ATSF operation of the branch would end forever.
In 1980, the Santa Fe filed for abandonment of the branch. By 1983, with abandonment approved, the ATSF contracted the scrapping to Railroad Resources. Instead of scrapping it, they decided to purchase it and attempt to bring back passenger operations. It's not every day the scrapper decides to buy the line outright and keep it intact! Just like the original SF&GC, however, Railroad Resources couldn't manage to raise the necessary funds to rehabilitate the line. In the end, it just didn't make it, and they attempted to scrap the line in 1986 or 1987. Their crew, however, was arrested by the local marshall for not having the appropriate permits. That brought an abrupt halt to the dismantling operation, if just for a little while.
As history records it, Max Biegert had apparently loaned Railroad Resources a bit of cash. Their default on the loan allowed him to foreclose on the northernmost 20 miles of trackage, and after a short period, purchased the rest of the line. Like the previous attempts, however, they could not find any financial backing, so Max and his wife Thelma tapped their own reserves to the tune of some fifteen million. By 1989, the business plan was together for restarting the line, and on 10-Jan-1989, the announced that the Grand Canyon Railway would run its first trip on 17-Sep-1989, only nine months later and exactly 88 years after the first revenue passenger train had made the same run. They made it - * the train ran behind GCRY 18, breaking some 15 years of silence on the route and ushering in a new era for visitors to the South Rim.
The original power was four ex-Lake Superior & Ishpeming Alco-built 2-8-0 steamers, 18, 19, 20, and 29. Also, as supplementary power for passenger trains, as well as for work trains, the railroad purchased ATSF 2072 and 2134, both EMD-manufactured diesel-electric GP7 units. Eventually 2072 was sold off, apparently sold to the Southwestern Railroad. 18 would be the first steamer used, as it was in the best shape coming in. Having served its time, it's currently out of service awaiting rebuilding. Both 19 and 20 were destined for a more static fate. 19 would eventually go to the MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas as a static display, and 20 would sit as a display in the yards by the depot (Photo #44). 29 would be eventually be fully rebuilt at a cost of over a million dollars and placed into service in late 2004, now being the GCRY's primary road power. 18, having done its time on the road, now sits aside the boarding platform in Williams. (Photo #45)
The railroad purchased one other steamer early on - a Baldwin-built ex-CB&Q 2-8-2, 4960. Acquired early on in the railroad's existence (exact date unknown, but supposedly not long after the 1989 opening), the locomotive sat around Williams for several years until 1993. At that point, the locomotive was shopped and put through what's been called one of the most thorough rebuildings ever done on a steam locomotive, taking some 80k man-hours and 1.5 million dollars. Finally put on the road in 1996, today it remains one of the two primary steam locomotives on the GCRY.
The Grand Canyon is not all steam, however. In addition to one of the original two GP7s, the road has a small fleet of a rare Alco diesel. During 1991, they acquired CNR 6773, an FPA-4. Built in 1958 by Alco for Canadian National, these FPA-4 and later FPB-4 units are rare in and of themselves, with only 36 FPA-4s and around 12 FPB-4s being built (all for Canadian National). Around 1996, when steamer 4960 was finally hitting the road, the GCRY invested in more FPA-4s and FPB-4s from VIA/CN, acquiring FPA-4s 6762, 6768, 6788, and 6793, along with FPB-4 boosters 6860 and 6871. Both FPB-4 units are on the road today, painted in the attractive green and gold GCRY scheme. Two of the FPA-4s, 6773 and 6793, have been kept in service as well. The other two FPA-4s languish in the Williams deadline, presumably to provide parts for their operational cousins.
The railroad went power shopping again in 2003, and came home with ex-Amtrak EMD F40PH units 237, 239, and 295. Of these three, 239 has been repaired and painted in a new silver and gold scheme, and was placed into regular service with the 2005 season. The other two F40PHs sit in the Williams shop complex, at the opposite end from the Alcos. The word is that one of these will probably be restored to service, and the other one used as a parts source and eventually scrapped. I have no idea what this means for the Alcos. Let's just hope it's a reflection of the GCRY's booming business and not any ominous end for those Alco-built relics.
By all measures, the new Grand Canyon Railway is a resounding success. In their first year, they beat the Santa Fe's best year by nearly 20,000 passengers, drawing nearly 100,000 tourists by the end of 1990. Last year, in 2004, they handled some 200,000 passengers, taking an estimated 85,000 cars out of the park. With the park roads and lots already stressed under the cars that bring some five million people every year (sometimes leading to half hour waits at the entrance gate, I'm told), the railway is a leasurely, ecologically-friendly way to visit the park.
Today's Grand Canyon Railway runs a single train daily between the restored Williams depot and the South Rim (Grand Canyon Village) every day, year round. When ticket sales surpass what the first train can handle, a second section is added. During the summer (Memorial Day to Labor Day), one of the steamers heads up the train, with the rest of the year operated by diesel (usually the FPA-4s, since the operational F40 is new).
My first encounter with the GCRY was on my way back from Phoenix back in February, on the same trip where I railfanned the SFS in the earlier part of this trip report. I got into Williams a few minutes before the train took off for the canyon. With a reasonably small train of only FPA-4 6773, FPB-6871, the power car, and 8 passenger cars, it was a light run, but still a surprising number of tourists for the off season. GCRY 6773 was built as CN 6773 by Montreal Locomotive Works (under license from Alco) in 1958. I only arrived a few minutes before departure at 1000h, so I grabbed a few quick shots of it at the depot and the accelerating across N. Grand Canyon Blvd. (Photo #46-47) It wasn't the best smoke display I've ever seen from an Alco, but it wasn't bad, either. Plus, the sound of an Alco, no matter what form its in, is an unmistakable, unforgettable sound.
North of Williams, the GCRY runs far away from the paved highway except for a few places. The first is a short section of parallel running with Arizona Hwy 180 near Red Lake, AZ, and the other is at the very end of the line at the South Rim. Dirt roads, on the other hand, run across the desert and intersect the railway in numerous places. However, with the melting snow on the ground and above freezing temperatures, dragging my little convertible off the paved road just didn't seem like the most intelligent thought that had ever popped into my head. So I grabbed a few more shots of the train at Red Lake and headed back for Colorado Springs. Oddly enough, the place where I shot these was a crossing called Espee Road, Espee of course being the oft-used phonetic nickname of the SP - Southern Pacific, the ATSF's arch-rival across the Southwest. How odd... (Photos #48-49)
Now that I'd seen the Grand Canyon Railway, I thought it'd be fun to come back and ride it...
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This work is copyright 2005 by Nathan D. Holmes
(firstname.lastname@example.org), but licensed under a
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All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 10D using either a Canon 28-105mm USM or a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.3 IS/USM.