5 Unusual Facts About the Grand Canyon Railway
French Fry Oil, a Log Depot and Confiscation by the Mexican Government
More than a century after its creation, the Grand Canyon Railway is delivering passengers to the canyon’s South Rim on a ride that blends adventure, history and culture.
The path this one-of-a-kind railway took to today’s popular service is an interesting one. It was established in the late 1800s as a means of hauling mined ore from Buckey O’Neill’s Anita Mines. But its owner quickly realized that hauling tourists could be lucrative, too, and probably more so. Unfortunately, Buckey was killed in the Spanish American War serving with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and never saw the railway’s completion to the Grand Canyon. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway completed the line to the South Rim in 1901. In 1905 the Santa Fe Railway opened El Tovar on the South Rim, which would become one of the great national park lodges. With a deluxe hotel perched on the edge of the spectacular gorge, and a comfortable way to get there, Grand Canyon tourism took off in earnest.
Automobile travel had long usurped rail travel by 1968, when the GCR passenger train made its final run. But the service was resurrected in 1989 as an excursion train ferrying visitors along 65 miles of track from Williams, Ariz., to the South Rim. The renewed service pulled out of the Williams depot on Sept. 17, 1989, exactly 88 years after its maiden run. Xanterra Travel Collection® bought the railway in 2007 and continues to expand the property and refine the experience.
Here are some fun factoids related to the GCR:
1. Its locomotives have distinct personalities. Yes, they’re machines. But even engines built in the same factory in the same year exhibit individual idiosyncrasies. Just ask Eric Hadder, the railway’s chief mechanical officer and a 27-year veteran of the operation. He confesses he’s partial to steam engines, though they can be “quite cantankerous.” While the railway’s six operable diesel-powered locomotives do the lion’s share of the work, one of two steam engines – a 1923 workhorse and a 1906 model — is pressed into service about once a month. “I appreciate steam engines’ place in the development of the nation and the ingenuity and trial and error that went into developing them,” says Hadder. “They reflect a simpler time.”
2. One of its two steam engines runs on vegetable oil. Dubbed the French Fry Express, Locomotive No. 4960 runs on recycled waste vegetable oil (WVO) – minus the crispy bits – collected from restaurants in Williams and the South Rim. The 1923 Baldwin Locomotive Works engine was converted in 2009 to run on WVO, an innovation that reduces emissions by half.
3. The Grand Canyon Railway delivers passengers to the nation’s only operational log depot. The Grand Canyon Depot, a fixture since 1910, sits near the South Rim steps from the iconic El Tovar Hotel. Constructed of fat, round logs painted milk-chocolate brown, it’s one of three remaining log depots and the only one that’s in use. Check out the vintage black and white photos circa 1915 on display there. You won’t see many Grand Canyon visitors today dressed in suits and derby hats, but other than that, the scene is eerily frozen in time.
4. They say it costs a million dollars a mile to run the railroad. That may be hyperbolic, but the sentiment reflects the fact that operating a railway requires a staggering amount of investment. The GCR’s 65 miles of track have 65 bridges dating to 1900. The tracks have 340,000 ties and about 6,000 annually are replaced at a cost of $79 each. The cost of refurbishing a single passenger railway car can exceed $1 million.
5. One of its luxury parlor cars, the Chief, was once confiscated by the Mexican government. The railway’s passenger cars have hauled U.S. troops to war and ferried baseball fans to San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. But one of the more colorful back stories belongs to the Chief. After doing service between New York and Miami for more than three decades, it was retired and bought by a private owner for use as a dinner train. It eventually ended up as a chartered dining car in Mexico, where it was seized by the government. After a year-long legal battle, it was returned to the border in 1994. The Chief was supposed to be delivered to San Antonio, but went missing and was later found in New Orleans. On the trip back to San Antonio, it was rear-ended and put into storage. To conceal the damage, a buyer in 1999 added a rear observation platform, where riders today can step out and feel the wind in their hair.
For travel experiences available from Xanterra Travel Collection® and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.
Grand Canyon Railway by the Numbers
6: Number of operable diesel engines
2: Number of operable steam engines
30 to 40: Miles per hour at which the train travels
41: Number of passenger cars (one of the largest fleets in any U.S. excursion railway)
65: Track mileage from Williams, Ariz., to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
364: Number of days per year the railway operates (It’s closed on Christmas.)
1,000,000: Dollar amount it can cost to refurbish a single rail car
Written by: Jayne Clark
Washington, DC-based freelance travel writer Jayne Clark has been a travel reporter at USA TODAY and several other daily newspapers.