The temperature at 7 a.m. was 26 degrees. Not what you would expect in Arizona, but Williams is at 6,766 feet of elevation. Williams is notable for two things. The first is it is part of the famous Route 66 and second is the Grand Canyon Railroad that travels 65 miles to the Grand Canyon.
Train travel is in my estimation one of the most relaxing modes of traveling. The slow pace of travel harkens back to a time when you actually enjoyed the trip and spent time talking to fellow travelers and listening to their adventures. Traveling on a train is like going through decompression from the fast pace we live in. Enter the Grand Canyon Railroad that attracts 225,000 passengers on a yearly basis.
The history of the railroad begins with William Owen “Buckey” O’Neill. O’Neill was a man of many talents. Mayor of Prescott, sheriff of Yavapai county, promoter, prospector and Rough Rider and visionary he recognized the opportunity to make money with mining and transporting visitors to the Grand Canyon via a railroad. His goal was to do both.
O’Neill had multiple copper claims throughout the area and investments with other miners in the Anita area some 45 miles north of Williams. He also built a cabin on the edge of the Grand Canyon which is now part of the Bright Angel Lodge one of the oldest buildings at the canyon. The challenge was to bring the copper ore out. By the way the copper was the richest at that time that Arizona had discovered. However due to the lack of resources to transport the copper to the smelter constructing the railroad didn’t seem possible.
Through private investors in New York and Chicago and the investment firm of Lombard, Goode and Company in 1895 the railroad began construction. In 1898 the Santa Fe and Grand Canyon Railroad started the work but it was finished by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company in 1901. Besides transporting the copper ore, visitors could finally travel from Williams to the South rim of the gorge. The train and overnight success and very popular.
Unfortunately for O’Neill he wasn’t able to witness the fruit of his efforts. As sheriff he had many encounters with death while engaging robbers and in one experience almost drowned in a fast moving river where his horse ended up drowning. In another brush with death he jumped from one moving train to another to apprehend an escaped prisoner. He served under Colonel Theodore Roosevelt with the Rough Riders fighting in Cuba during the Spanish American War. O’Neill assembled a group of cowboys, miners and loggers from the Territory of Arizona into Troop A, First U.S.Volunteer Cavalry.
Kettle Hill better known at San Juan Hill was where O’Neill was killed by a Spanish sniper. Apparently the cavalry became the infantry when their horses were left behind in the United States because they did not have the ships to transport them to Cuba. Killed on July 1, 1898 he is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
O’Neill’s strength and tenacity in bringing the Grand Canyon Railroad to fruition has provided enjoyment to many visitors to the gorge. His legacy lives on with each passenger that chooses to ride his railroad.
Williams should be on your bucket list and especially if you have children or grandchildren. During the Christmas season they have a special steam locomotive to run the Polar Express and the dress of the day is pajamas. Book early, the train is always full and the excitement of the children is electric.