Grand Canyon Train Ride

February 1, 2005
Filed under Travel

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This is the Kaibab National Forest. The sun shows itself as long, shiny spikes among the forest’s tall pine trees as our train rumbles through it. Coming off a grade, Charlie Reynolds eases back on the throttle to rein in the 1,800 hp of the train’s diesel locomotive. “Can’t let it get too fast, not over 40,” he says. Behind him is the lumbering momentum of eight museum-class passenger coaches, where eager sight-seers headed for the Grand Canyon fill every seat. “I used to pull trains of the Santa Fe,” is how Charlie put it, telling of his 40-year career as a railroad engineer. With this retirement job, he is home every night, gets his picture taken often and “pulls” just the one train — the Grand Canyon Railway.

It departs every morning at 10 a.m. from the old depot in Williams, and arrives at the South Rim at 12:15 p.m. People ride this train as much for the joy of it as to get where Charlie is taking them. The trip covers 65 miles of wide-open plains, canyons, alpine meadows and portions of one of the world’s largest ponderosa forests. During the trip, western singers wander through the cars, adding a contemporary touch to what is in reality an early 20th Century experience. At the South Rim, after passengers have scattered to their hotels or off on bus- or walking-tours, Charlie walks back to one of the Harriman coaches, stretches out in a seat, eats the lunch he brought with him and reads a while. At 3:30 pm, Charlie is again in the cab, and we’re headed back to Williams. Somewhere along the way, masked bandits on horseback ride up alongside the train, guns firing.

Charlie is “forced” to stop. They scramble on board. It’s a hold-up, of course — happens every day. The embarked “marshal,” John Moore, puts up a good fight, but it ends in a draw. Even with the “unscheduled” stop for the robbers, Charlie always makes it back to Williams by 5:45 pm, in time to get to Prescott and home for dinner. While Charlie was having his lunch, Mike Cowan and I walked up one side of the train and down the other. We stopped at every wheel, where Mike put his hand on the journal box to check for heat. Mike is the conductor; he runs the train. He is 56, grew up in New Hampshire and has been working on the Grand Canyon Railway for five years. “Going through Coconino Canyon, the steam engine speaks to my soul,” Mike said. After that, I didn’t ask how he likes his job. Mike explained that they use a steam engine, of which they have three, from Memorial Day through September.

All were coal-burners, but have been modified to burn oil — a cleaner, more efficient fuel. “They require constant maintenance,” Mike said, “so we just use them during the peak tourist months. There is no water available for the railroad at the South Rim. We have it hauled in. Those big old boilers use so much water coming up that they have to take on more to get home … something you don’t have to worry about with a diesel locomotive.” As a practical matter, the steam engine is far less efficient than diesel. But then, tourist attractions are never meant to be efficient. Miners were the initial developers of the Grand Canyon. Their trails and camps served early visitors who came by coach, wagon or horseback to see this geological wonder that is now America’s most popular natural tourist attraction.

Passenger-train service began here 1901. This was not a national park then; that designation came 18 years later. In the interim, the Santa Fe Railroad developed and promoted the canyon. It worked in tandem with Fred Harvey, whose chain of hotels and dining rooms, called “Harvey Houses,” were billed as a meal apart across the country along the track of the Santa Fe. Railroads had barely conquered the West when automobiles and trucks challenged their preeminence as the nation’s prime hauler. Half a century after the Grand Canyon rail spur opened, its demise was evident. The Santa Fe had only three paying customers on its last passenger train to the South Rim on July 30, 1968. That year, the park drew 1.9 million visitors.

In the three decades since, that number has grown to 4 million visitors a year. And their vehicles — RVs and cars — overwhelm the limited space available for them. So in January 1989, when Arizona entrepreneurs Max and Thelma Biegert proposed a revival of rail service to the South Rim, everyone cheered. Eight months later, on September 17, in Williams, they broke a champagne bottle on the coupler of a steam engine reopening passenger-train service to the Grand Canyon. Moore, the 6-foot 4-inch tall “marshal” rides the train — “to keep order,” he says.

“I’m 18 years out of Missouri, where I was a lawman,” he told me, “but I carry a gun now more then I ever did back there. Moore added, “Volumes have been written about the complex geology that created the Grand Canyon, but it was the railroad that made it — made it accessible, and the tourist mecca that it is today.” Like Mike, John is a devoted train aficionado. “The real train freaks we call ‘foamers,’ as in foaming at the mouth. I’m not that far-gone, but I really love trains. When the steam engine comes off line in the fall, I miss the whistle. It’s a long winter around here without it.”

Bill’s e-mail address: roadscribe@aol.com.

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