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By Ted & Sylvia Blishak
HighOnAdventure.com   June 1, 2013

          It was 4:30 am on May 3, 2013. Amtrak's Southwest Chief #4 eased to a stop, 40 minutes late, surrounded by dark forest.

         "Don't worry," said our sleeping-car attendant as he carried our luggage downstairs. "This train won't leave unless the van is here to meet you. It's 28 F. out there,  and windy." The stop was exactly the way he described it.

         Concrete platform, no station, no structure. Not even a bench or a trash can.  Just two lampposts, four streetlamps -- and a small white Grand Canyon Railway mini-van waiting on a cleared dirt area. Amtrak's train pulled away towards the first light of false dawn.  Our waiting driver carried the luggage to her van while we shivering passengers climbed in.    

         Where were we?  Williams Junction, Arizona. Although listed in Amtrak's timetable, its described as having "No address". It doesn't qualify as a real place.  But Amtrak passengers disembark here on their way to the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.


         It was a sleepy 15-minute ride to Williams, mostly on a dirt road, but eventually on Historic Route 66. At 6,800 feet, Williams is the headquarters of the Grand Canyon Railway. Their hotel  lobby was brightly lit, the desk clerk cheerfully awake as we registered.  The sound of the Platters’ “My Prayer” wafted in the  background.  (Wasn’t that the same song I listened to here when my parents took us to Grand Canyon in 1956?)

         We'd come to Williams for a "Steam over Glass" journey to ride behind a steam engine – while seated in a full-length vintage dome car the railway had recently restored.


         The Grand Canyon Railway (GCRW) stopped running steam engines over air quality and cost issues in 2008 after the ecologically-minded Xanterra Parks & Resorts assumed ownership of the National Park's concessions.  GCRW maintains a large machine shop, operated by 35 employees and furnished with $500,000 worth of equipment.  It is set up for maintaining diesels, rolling stock, and steam engines.

         (There are usually job opportunities, sometimes including on-the-job training, available there for machinists, welders, painters, etc. Call 1 800 THE TRAIN for details.)

A vintage deisel awaits restoration near the railroad's shop.


         The GCRW was able to retrofit the steam engines so they could burn a recycled product -- cleaner-burning used vegetable oil from nearby fast-food restaurants! They also began using a biodegradable, non-toxic oil for lubricating the steam engines. 

         The thirsty steam locomotives began to utilize reclaimed rain and snow melt – collected during the winter and Northern Arizona’s rainy season – in the boiler for steam.

         This cleared the way for the railway to resume occasional steam service while leaving a minimal carbon footprint. These innovations won the company a 2011 Environmental Achievement Award from the federal government.


         The railroad has several operating diesel locomotives, GM F-40FHs and Alco FAs, which pull the trains most of the time. While this saves a considerable amount of fuel and reduces air pollutants associated with steam locomotives, a living, breathing steam engine is what stirs the soul. 


         But maintenance is expensive, and fuel and water are too. On a trip to the Grand Canyon and back to Williams, #4960 burns 1,000 gallons of waste vegetable oil and processes 14,000 gallons of water.

         Steam locomotive #4960 was built in 1923 by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. It served as a freight and coal hauler for the  Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q) railroad until the late 1950s.



         After its retirement from mainline service, #4960 ran excursions and appeared in various museums. In 1989, it was disassembled and shipped to Williams on flat cars. The railway began a thorough rebuild in 1993. It made its first official run on the Grand Canyon line in 1996.

         There is a wealth of misinformation online about the history of the "Fred Harvey", but here's the correct condensed version --  which we know from personal experience with two prior owners, the now defunct American Orient Express and the late GrandLuxe Rail Journeys. (A press release issued by David Schoenberg for Xanterra, dated September 28, 2012, is also accurate.)

         Constructed by the Budd Company for the CB&Q in 1955, the dome car was named “River View” and painted in the orange, green, and gold livery of the “Empire Builder”.  Through the years “River View” was used by other railroads. In 2001 it ended up on the American Orient Express (AOE).  It was renamed “Copper Canyon”,  reflecting its short-lived excursions into Mexico. 

         After the bankruptcy of AOE, their entire set of equipment, including “Copper Canyon” was purchased by GrandLuxe Rail Journeys, which in turn succumbed to the economic meltdown in 2009. 

         The equipment was sold to Xanterra Parks and Resorts, whose plans for a luxury “American Railway Explorer” train began by stripping the old cars and sand-blasting off the AOE's blue, gold and cream exterior paint. Sadly, the project was cancelled before the cars were rebuilt, rewired, repainted and remodeled. But since Xanterra owns the Grand Canyon Railway, the remains of "Copper Canyon" were sent to Williams.

         Naked of paint outside and a rusty shell inside, the car needed a complete overhaul which required over 8,000 man hours.

The dome car was a rusted shell before it was rebuilt by GCRW


The interior of the "Fred Harvey" after restoration.

Xanterra also donated carpeting and furniture originally intended for the "American Railway Explorer".  AOE afficianodos will recognize the snowflake pattern below which is similar to the blue background carpeting used inside the AOE.

The interior of the Fred Harvey during restoration. (GCRW photo)

The downstairs lounge features a Victorian decor and is reminiscent of the early days of train travel when people traveled in luxury wearing fine clothing.


The dome was renamed “Fred Harvey” in honor of the man who first opened a series of restaurants along Santa Fe rails.  In pre-dining car days, trains would stop to let passengers enjoy the Harvey high-quality meals.  Staffed by attractive young single women, the restaurants also were popular with local ranchers.

         The “Fred Harvey” is 85 feet long and carries 66 passengers in the reserved upstairs Luxury Dome, and features open seating in the Downstairs Lounge and Bar.

         All Aboard!

         At 9:00am Saturday, May 4, 2013, # 4960 backed today’s train to the Williams Depot.  At the tail end of the consist was Grand Canyon Railway's luxury open platform Parlor Car, “Santa Fe”,  shown below; just ahead was “Fred Harvey”.


         And there we were, climbing aboard, 63 years after this dome first rolled out on the rails, enjoying the view of the Coconino Plateau from our comfortable seats under the curved glass dome.    

         The steam engine began to chuff away from the depot. A traditional send-off by the ground crew was under way. Several employees on the platform were brandishing placards spelling out a message for the departing passengers.

                 THANKS        FOR        RECYCLING         


         Climbing out of Williams, we passed the extensive railway shops and yards. There were many unrestored passenger cars there (some veterans of the AOE/GrandLuxe era still in blue, cream, and gold paint) awaiting their turn, including just one that had been repainted in the bright green and pale yellow livery of the cancelled "American Railway Explorer" train.  The tracks tunneled under the Burlington Northern Santa Fe main rail line, then under Interstate 40, with its long lines of 18 wheelers, before entering  the wilderness area of the Coconino Plateau.

         Stands of ponderosa gave way to juniper trees, followed by miles of sagebrush.  There are very few buildings here, as the water table is so far down that drilling wells is impractical.  By decree, each home must have a large water storage facility, and owners are responsible for bringing their portable water carriers into Williams, which sells city water to the few hardy souls who live in this wild outback.


         The huge vanes of a wind farm's mills were motionless today.  Otherwise, one of the few signs of civilization was a string of high-tension power lines. We saw no paved roads, only a few dirt tracks.

         The train ambled along the high desert. In spite of the colorful brochure the railroad issues, one could not see the Canyon, or indeed any indication that one of the greatest geological wonders of the world was a few miles ahead. Rather than descending towards the canyon, the plateau gradually rises from 6,772 feet at Williams Depot to an altitude of 6,906 at the El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. 

         While scenery was at a minimum, passengers were entertained and coddled. A fine buffet with fresh fruit, coffee, and pastries came first. Then there were strolling musicians and actors dressed in wild west garb.

         A well-stocked bar was available in the downstairs lounge.

         After our arrival at the Grand Canyon Station,

we walked up an inclined path and repaired to the El Tovar Hotel.

Its verandah provides a excellent view of the canyon, as well as offering light meals and beverages.


         Later, while strolling eastward along the Canyon rim, we recognized the unmistakable drumming sounds of Native Americans. A family of Navajos from the nearby reservation were sharing their music, explaining their culture, and performing traditional dances in full costume.

The narrator/drummer spoke proudly of his grandfather,  one of the famous US Army "Code Talkers" of World War II. The military, looking for an unbreakable code, heard about the Navajo language and recruited Tribal members. Others volunteered, some he guessed as young as 14, since the Tribe didn't keep detailed records in those days. Many Navajos are unusually tall, and so few volunteers were turned away due to their youth.

          The enemy could never decipher their communications.

         The narrator used the language in both song and speech to demonstrate its unusual sound, which seems to have no commonality with the English alphabet.


However, he assured us that it is translatable to the written word and he is an instructor teaching tribal members how to do so.


         The return trip that afternoon included snacks, champagne, and of course, a train robbery with mounted and costumed villains.


         The 65-mile-long rail journey from the South Rim back to Williams is all out of sight of the highway, which gives passengers the pleasant illusion that the National Park is not the crowded-highway and parking-lot nightmare that visitors by automobile report.

         Our conductor thanked us all for reducing our carbon footprints by riding the train instead. 




                  The end of the train carries a drumhead, above, with its name, Williams Flyer. This is a bit of GCRW humor, since the train averages only a leisurely 28 miles per hour.

                  In order to ride a steam engine on selected dates, visit www.thetrain.com or call 1 800 THE TRAIN. Your travel agent can explain the various packages including hotels that are available, and the several classes of service on the train itself.  Our advice is to book Dome Class and ask for the lavish and pristine "Fred Harvey" which is the only one with full-length glass on top.


         Your agent can also book travel to and from the Canyon for you.  It is possible to fly to Flagstaff, rent a car there, and then drive on Interstate 40, about 45 minutes to Williams.


  Ted and Sylvia Blishak   logo  
Sylvia & Ted Blishak

NAMED ONE OF THE WORLD'S TOP TRAVEL SPECIALISTS BY CONDE NAST TRAVELER MAGAZINE SINCE 2002. 3939 S. Sixth St. #331, Klamath Falls, OR 97603 Phone:  800 347 0645       Fax:  541 883 6457    http://www.traintravelconsulting.com

Ted and Sylvia Blishak

We are Ted and Sylvia Blishak, who not only write about trains, but also plan customized North America vacations -- with more experience booking rail trips than any other travel agents in the US!

Our travel agency, Train Travel Consulting, has been named as one of the World's Top Travel Specialists by Conde Nast Traveler Magazine since 2002.

Are you a vacationer who wants to travel at your own pace -- to destinations that you choose?

Please visit http://www.traintravelconsulting.com, email sylvia@traintravelconsulting.com, or phone 1 800 347 0645.

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