Early in the 20th century, rail travel was the primary (and most comfortable) mode of transportation in the West, and for a new generation of travelers, it was the preferred way to see the grand sights. As part of this way of touristic life, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company
inaugurated steam-train service to the canyon on September 17, 1901. Millions of travelers followed, including five presidents, numerous foreign dignitaries, movie stars and artists, often staying in the elegant El Tovar Hotel
on the South Rim to gaze, paint, photograph and simply contemplate this most dramatic of natural wonders. But in 1968, with most travelers having been seduced by automobile travel, passenger service was discontinued because people preferred to drive.
Much to their credit, Max and Thelma Bigert revived the line, starting service again on September 17, 1989, precisely 88 years after its inaugural passenger run. They like to say that they put the train back on track. Last May, I reached the Canyon by road but left via the Grand Canyon Railway, a delightful ride that lasted 2 1/2 hours but took me and my fellow passengers way back into the last century with entertainment enhancements from this one. We rode through the forest with live entertainment in each car (left), a staged train robbery and terrific tales, tall and otherwise, spun by conductors in old-style uniforms. We detrained in Williams, an interesting little town along Historic Route 66.
The Bigerts are bowing out, but the show will go on. They put the railroad up for sale last year. A letter of intent transferring the railroad to Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the nation’s largest national parks concessionaire, was soon signed. By late March, assuming the National Park Service approves, Xanterra should be operating the train. Under the Bigerts the Grand Canyon Railway has been operating daily service between Williams and Grand Canyon National Park, summer and winter. It has been welcoming more than 220,000 passengers a year, and the Bigerts’ operation also includes the the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, an RV park, a restaurant and several real estate parcels, all in Williams. The amount of the bid was not disclosed.
Xanterra runs lodges, restaurants and other concessions at national parks, including Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Crater Lake, Death Valley and Petrified Forest national parks, as well as state parks in South Dakota and Ohio. This will be its venture into running a railroad, but the company has a fine record of maintaining and restoring historic properties, including the recent and respectful rehabilitation of Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park.
In peak season, the most visited national parks, including Grand Canyon, have been grappling with ways to lessen traffic and pollution from auto emissions by limiting vehicule access and ooperating in-park shuttle systems. Accommodating private vehicles has required, in the words of the song, paving paradise and putting in parking lots. It stands to reason that more train travel into Grand Canyon National Park means fewer cars and fewer parking lots — and therefore another step toward the preservaion of paradise. As for emissions, I can’t begin to comment on whether a steam or diesel locomotive transporting a set number of passengers is more or less polluting than the same number in private cars, RVs, pickup trucks, SUVs and tourist motocoaches, but I will say that everything else aside, a ride on this classic train has nostalgia value in its own right. I recommend it.