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If the Grand Canyon train service owes its development to the Santa Fe Railway, it also owes plenty to Fred Harvey. Harvey was an Englishman who came to the U.S. in 1850. From humble beginnings, he rose to create America's first hotel chain – the Harvey Houses that served passengers on Santa Fe Railway trains.
Harvey's first Harvey House was located in Topeka, Kansas. It opened in 1876, and offered travelers a place to rest for a few minutes while they enjoyed a decent meal (something non-existent on most other train lines of the time).
The meals were served by scrupulously groomed and gowned "Harvey Girls," who were often the first women western men had seen in months or years. In fact, Harvey became known unofficially as the "civilizer" of the west because so many Harvey Girls married and began families after they completed their contracts with Harvey.
The Harvey Houses spread out all over the west, and some turned into hotels and eateries, while others simply remained stopovers for hungry train passengers. The Fred Harvey Company was the first concessionaire at the Grand Canyon. The company was bought out in 1968, but continued to operate as The Fred Harvey Company through the 1970s, and beyond.
If you're a steam train buff who just can't wait to see and feel the steam experience on the Grand Canyon Railway, you need to make special plans for your vacation. The steam locomotives only run between Memorial Day and Labor Day each year. The rest of the time, classic diesel engines pull the train.
The steam engines undergo maintenance and rest during the winter, which they need because of their age (they are all at least 80 years old or more). Weather can also be harsh during the winter, and the diesel locomotives handle the challenges of cold winter weather a little bit better.
All of the locomotives on the Grand Canyon Railway are vintage, and so are the cars. They have all been restored by the railway's own shop and maintenance crews.
Grand Canyon Railway operates trains every day of the year except December 24 and 25. In the fall they offer a Sunset Limited train that arrives at the South Rim just in time for sunset. During the winter, they offer a special "Polar Express" for the young and the young-at-heart.
The 65-mile one-way trip from Williams to the South Rim takes about 2 1/2 hours. The train travels a winding path through the forests and grasslands of the high desert, and offers a variety of scenery and wildlife viewing.
Food is available on the train, along with entertainment. The staff serves complementary beverages, and acts as tour guides, too. Trains leave in the morning and return to Williams in the early evening, or passengers can opt to spend one or two nights inside the park on the South Rim.
Santa Fe began to lay tracks from Williams to the Grand Canyon in 1899, and operated the railroad to the Grand Canyon from 1901 until 1974, when they abandoned service and the railroad tracks. The depot at the Grand Canyon was also abandoned, and fell into disrepair.
Beginning in 1977, there were efforts to resurrect the railroad under private ownership, but plans continually fell through. It wasn't until 1988 that Phoenix businessman Max Biegert and his wife Thelma purchased the railway and developed the current train service. The first train arrived at the Grand Canyon depot in September, 1989, and the train has run continually since then. About 130,000 passengers now ride the railroad every year, so it's a good idea to make your reservations early.
If you'd like to make your Grand Canyon visit an all-train experience, the Grand Canyon Railways offers a Grand Canyon train tour available from just about any area of the country through connections with Amtrak. In a partnership, passengers can purchase a Grand Canyon train tour ticket when they book their reservations with Amtrak.
The Southwest Chief, one of Amtrak's premier routes, serves Los Angeles and Chicago. It makes a stop in Williams along the way. Amtrak passengers in other areas of the country will need to connect with the Southwest Chief to take advantage of the Grand Canyon train tour partner arrangement.
Passengers can also tour other Northern Arizona areas, such as Sedona, by booking a tour when they purchase their tickets for the Grand Canyon train.
The Grand Canyon train offers several classes for just about any passenger. They range from Coach Class, which is the cheapest, to the Luxury Parlor Car. In between are Club Class, and First Class. The two premier classes, Deluxe Observation Class and the Luxury Parlor Car, do not allow children under 16.
Each of these train classes offers different amenities, and often visitors ride one class to the canyon and return in another class to alter the experience just a bit. Passengers can also purchase separate tour packages for travel and sightseeing once they arrive at the South Rim.
The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, located in Williams across the street from the train depot, is based on a historic hotel operated by the Santa Fe Railway. The new hotel is casual but contemporary, western, and family-oriented.
The hotel offers suites, deluxe rooms, and indoor pool, several recreation areas, and a lounge. Restaurants are located across the street and visitors can book packages that include lodging, a train ride to the Grand Canyon, and lodging at the Grand Canyon, if desired. They also offer a pet resort (pets are not allowed in the rooms at the Grand Canyon or on the train) and a RV park.
The Grand Canyon Railway is carrying on a long and treasured railroad tradition in Northern Arizona. The Santa Fe Railway was one of the first railroads to stretch into the Southwest from the East – bringing passengers, tourists, supplies, and civilization to the "Wild West."
The Santa Fe was the first railway to build a track north from Williams to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and the company also helped develop Grand Canyon Village. They built the Grand Canyon Depot, the El Tovar Hotel, and many other buildings. In fact, all the materials used to construct the village came to the rim by train, and all the water used in the park came by train until 1926.
The Santa Fe was the first to really promote the canyon as a tourist destination too; so much of the canyon's history traces back to a railroad and the development it provided.
The Grand Canyon railroad depot in Williams was built in 1908, and originally contained a Harvey House to help serve passengers on the Santa Fe Railroad. The building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is mostly original, as is the loading platform where visitors board the train.
Next door to the depot you'll find a small museum commemorating railroad history in Williams and the West, along with a display of a 1910 steam engine and a 1923 coach car. The depot is just across the street from the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, and is only about 1/2 mile off Interstate 40 via Grand Canyon Boulevard.