First developed in the United Kingdom during the 19th century, the steam locomotive was a marvel of its day, a method of transportation which defined the American landscape through much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. An incredibly “visual” machine which inspires awe through its large frame, and heavy, loud movements, the steam engine, much like the American west itself, is defined by a more rough, natural, and physical state of being.
During the height of the Steam Era in the United States, more than 100,000 individual steam locomotives run on coal, wood, or oil, traversed the vast landscape of the country. However, as the 20th century progressed, environmental concerns led to a reduction in steam power, with all steam locomotives losing their position to diesel and electrical-powered trains rather rapidly throughout the middle of the century. Today, many people hold the idea of the steam locomotive nostalgically, seeing it as a machine indicative of times past. In fact, of the 100 or so tourist steam engines still running in the United States, none do more than travel short distances at low speeds; but this is not so at the Grand Canyon Railroad.
The “Green Steam” Movement
Beginning on Earth Day, April 22, 2013, the Grand Canyon Railroad reintroduced long distance steam engine travel to the United States, championing the reemergence of not only steam locomotive engine power, but a “green” form of it. Using waste vegetable oil (WVO)—yes, the kind used to make French fries and chicken fingers!—the GCR’s “green” locomotive not only brings back the power and memories of the Steam Locomotive Age, but does so in a way that does not harm the earth.
This repurposing of materials even extends to the engines running on steam. The GCR decommissioned its pioneer green steam engine, Locomotive No. 4960, for environmental reasons in 2008, before outfitting it for this new form of fuel. Built in 1923 by Baldwin Locomotive Works, No. 4960 spent most of its early life hauling coal freight on the east coast. It was taken off tracks in the 1950s and sat idle for years before travelling westward to join GCR in 1996. The introduction of “Green Steam” at GCR remade No. 4960 for a new era, and allows a new generation of train lovers the chance to experience it.
Travelling the “Green” Way
The Grand Canyon Railroad still runs a large fleet of diesel-powered locomotives throughout the year, saving No. 4960 for the 65-mile trip between Williams, AZ and the Grand Canyon’s South Rim during limited, high tourist times. For the 2014 season, GCR offers rides on No. 4960 on the first Saturday of every month in April-October and on special holidays including President’s Day (February 17th), Earth Day (April 22nd), and the GCR anniversary (September 17th). Like the diesel locomotives at GCR, No. 4960 pulls a variety of passenger cars including First Class, Coach Class, Observation Dome cars and Luxury Domes and Parlors; the final two options are reserved for those ages 15 and up, however. Prices vary according to season. Check out the Grand Canyon Railroad’s website for more information and to make a reservation.