Grand Design (Grand Canyon railroad depot, Grand Canyon (AZ), USA)

Sometimes great transport architecture isn’t about the sleek and cutting edge, nor about the historical and highly decorated. It can simply be buildings which are perfectly complementary to their locales, blending in rather than standing out. This can be the best solution in surroundings which are themselves of great landscape value. In few places can that be more appropriate than America’s national parks. We’ve already looked at examples of sensitively designed bus stops in Yosemite National Park, and this week we’re off to Grand Canyon National Park. Grand Canyon, you see, has the one thing Yosemite doesn’t. A railway. Oh, and also a mile-deep canyon. Two things, then.

Grand Canyon train depot 2 (27 May 2014)
Grand Canyon train depot. This is the ‘back’ side. I’m saving the better-known ‘front’ side until later. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

Before we get to the railway and its station (or depot, rather, to give it its correct name) it’s worth mentioning that Grand Canyon has a network of shuttle buses designed as an alternative to car access around the Canyon’s south rim. It’s similar to, but on a larger scale than, the operation at Yosemite. At Grand Canyon though, the buses are not an optional alternative to cars but a requirement. Cars have to be parked at one of the parking lots, and local access around the park is undertaken on the buses, unless you prefer to cycle or walk.

Many of the bus stops feature production versions of the National Park Service standard bus shelter, developed by Hamilton + Aitken at Yosemite, as usual with rough stone bases and wood shake roofs. The adaptability of the design can be seen through the variations employed, which still utilise the same basic concept.

Bus shelter opposite Grand Canyon train depot. The branching supports made of logs echo those on the train depot. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set
Bus shelter opposite Grand Canyon train depot. The branching supports made of logs echo those on the train depot, which can be seen in the earlier photo. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

One of the main differences between Grand Canyon’s and Yosemite’s bus stops is that those on the Grand Canyon utilise chunky bus stop flags framed in ‘weathering steel’. Weathering steel is where the steel is effectively allowed to go rusty. The iron oxide layer on the outside forms a protective layer which prevents further erosion of the metal. It’s a common practice amongst modern sculptors and architects, but if not used carefully, the effect can simply make it appear that a building or sculpure isn’t being properly maintained. At the Grand Canyon, however, it works extremely well, tying the bus stops to the rust-red appearance of the upper layers of the canyon itself. You can see it on the bus stop pole and flag in the picture above.

The main attraction for transport architecture admirers, however, is the Grand Canyon railroad depot. Grand Canyon is the only national park in America served by its own dedicated railroad line. It opened in 1901 to serve Grand Canyon Village, which was slowly being developed as a tourist attraction. It could be argued that the railroad itself was chiefly responsible for the development of Grand Canyon as a major tourist attraction. The Grand Canyon Railway, a subsidiary of the Santa Fe, was built to ship passengers in and out of what the railway wanted to develop as a fully-fledged tourist destination, not to mention bringing in the food and other supplies needed for a functioning visitor attraction. The Fred Harvey Company (the commercial partner of the Santa Fe Railroad, which built Harvey House restaurants at many railroad stations including Los Angeles Union Station) built the large El Tovar Hotel at Grand Canyon Village in 1905. A new and larger railroad depot was built opposite the hotel in 1909-10, and this is the building that remains to this day. It was designed by the Santa Fe’s architect Francis Wilson, who clearly knew a thing or two about building to last, because the depot is looking pretty good for 104 years old.

Grand Canyon train depot. This is the ‘front’ side, facing the tracks, and therefore is the side visitors would see on arrival at the Grand Canyon. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

The main detail that makes Grand Canyon railroad depot notable, and so perfect for its environment, is that it is a log cabin building. The logs are squared off on three sides: upper and lower for construction, and on the inside to give flat internal walls. On the fourth (external) side however, the logs retain their curvature. The external walls thus have a very rustic appearance. Arriving at this station, passengers could have been in no doubt that they were truly in one of America’s great wildernesses, and this was a very deliberate design choice.

It is one of only three surviving log cabin railroad depots in America (out of 14 known examples, although I daresay other early and poorly-recorded examples await recognition), and the only one where logs form a primary structural material, and which is still in use as a railroad depot. This is according to the current operator of the Grand Canyon Railway (see here) and America’s National Park Service, and is re-quoted all over the internet. However, were I still working for a transport news magazine, my editor would by this point be asking me to prove this fact by detailing the locations of the other two log cabin railroad depots. Unfortunately, this seems to be where the facts run out, so it’s probably safest to say that it’s almost certainly the only operational log cabin railroad depot in America and very probably one of three survivors, at least until such time as I can find some corroborating independent evidence.

The central part of the Grand Canyon’s railroad depot is of two storeys, with an attic floor above these two, and each floor overhanging the one below. The upper floors were accommodation for the station master, while the lower floor, and the single storey flanking wings, were built for operational railway business.

The outside features the name “Grand Canyon” in big copper cut-out letters, as well as Santa Fe Railway logos, tucked under the eaves.

Grand Canyon train depot. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set
Grand Canyon train depot, upper and attic floors. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

It’s a building that reeks of its history. It feels connected to the grandeur of its surroundings and to the experience of catching a steam train into the heart of one of America’s most beautiful and striking landscapes. It is a chunky building that speaks of the toughness needed to survive in a location like Grand Canyon (hot and dry in the summer, cold and dry in the winter). Its details are almost rough and ready. If Davey Crockett had built railroad depots, this is the railroad depot he would have built. That, I am sure, is precisely the effect Wilson was going for.

External door at Grand Canyon train depot. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set
External door at Grand Canyon train depot. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

Inside, the frontier-feel continues. This is the main waiting room, which apart from some small details appears to be essentially unchanged since the depot was opened.

inside the waiting room at Grand Canyon train depot. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set
inside the waiting room at Grand Canyon train depot. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

The log-frame light fittings are particularly nice, but they’re bested by the delightful door handles, which are original and which feature the Grand Canyon Railway’s intertwined “GC” logo. As usual, I want a reproduction for use in my house somewhere.

Door handle, Grand Canyon train depot. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set
Door handle, Grand Canyon train depot. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

The railroad depot at Grand Canyon is still in daily use. The original railroad operation ceased in 1968 but was restarted as a private initiative in 1989 and is still going strong (see here). The one train a day from Williams to Grand Canyon is normally operated by a vintage diesel locomotive, but on occasion steam locomotives are used. One of those things arriving in a national park is quite an experience. If vintage rolling stock isn’t your cup of coffee, then the costumed actors staging a hold up during the journey between Grand Canyon and Williams might well be.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Grand Canyon Village and its immediate surroundings is that the railroad depot is one of three railroad stations, which would be a high number in a town many times the size of Grand Canyon Village. The other two stations are also neat pieces of design, and their story demonstrates some of the controversies surrounding sustainable access to places of great landscape value, as we’ll see next week.

how to find Grand Canyon Railroad depot

Follow this link

bibliography

thetrain.com, operators of the Grand Canyon Railway, with history of the railroad and its depots.

The National Park Service’s detailed description of the railroad depot, its design and history, here. Bear in mind that this was written before the depot was brought back into use in 1989.

As usual, anything else linked to above will have been read for background

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