December 7, 2023 in Arizona

The Unlikely Story of How a Train Station Became the Town of WILLIAMS, Arizona

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Early History

The city of Williams, Arizona was founded in 1881 when the railroad was extended to the area during the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The town was named after William Sherley “Old Bill” Williams, a famous mountain man and scout who explored the western United States in the early 19th century.

The Atlantic and Pacific Railroad began building a line through northern Arizona in 1880 that would connect California to the rest of the country. Williams was established 30 miles west of Flagstaff along the railroad, near the Kaibab National Forest. The cool ponderosa pine forests and location along the newly built railroad helped it grow into an important stopping point and logging town.

By 1882, the railroad was completed through Williams, solidifying its critical role in transportation and commerce. The steady flow of goods, supplies, and travelers fueled the town’s early economy. Ranching, timber, and tourism industries began to thrive around Williams near the turn of the century.

Williams gained national prominence when the famous Route 66 highway was built directly through town in 1926, connecting it to other major destinations like Los Angeles and Chicago. This brought a flood of automobile travelers and tourists over the decades that followed, drawn by the iconic route and beautiful mountain scenery surrounding Williams. Numerous motels, cafes, gas stations and diners were built to serve these road-weary travelers.

Williams retains an old west railroad town charm, in large part due to its origins and location along the famous Route 66 highway. While the railroad and Route 66 no longer serve their original transportation purposes, they left an indelible imprint on the history and economy of Williams. The town today proudly celebrates its fascinating transportation legacy and early beginnings.

Geography and Climate

Williams is located in northern Arizona, about 35 miles west of Flagstaff along Historic Route 66. The city sits at an elevation of 6,799 feet in the ponderosa pine forests of the Kaibab National Forest.

The area’s geography is dominated by the immense Grand Canyon, just 50 miles north of Williams. The Grand Canyon was carved over millions of years by the Colorado River, revealing millions of years of geologic history through its layered sedimentary rock formations.

Williams is surrounded by mountains, canyons, and plateaus. The San Francisco Peaks, including Humphreys Peak, rise to the north. Bill Williams Mountain stands to the south. The Red Lake plateau and Sycamore Canyon wilderness lie to the west.

The region has a semi-arid continental climate, with cold winters and mild summers. Summers are warm during the day but cool off at night. Winters often see substantial snow, with median snowfall around 60 inches per year. The driest time is May through June. Monsoon rains come in July and August.

Population Growth

The population of Williams, Arizona has fluctuated over the past 150 years as the local economy shifted. Founded in 1881, Williams started as a water and fuel stop for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. By 1883, the population had reached approximately 2000 residents. However, the population declined after the railroad moved its division point 30 miles west to the town of Seligman in 1887.

The population continued declining into the early 1900s. However, the creation of the Grand Canyon National Park in 1919 led to growth in Williams as tourism became a major part of the local economy. The population increased from 1,890 in 1920 to 3,023 in 1940. However, it remained fairly steady over the next few decades, reaching 3,146 residents in 1970.

The population saw more significant growth starting in the 1990s as Williams became a popular gateway city to the Grand Canyon. New retail stores, restaurants and hotels were constructed to serve tourists. The population grew to 2,927 in 1980, 3,375 in 1990, and reached 3,094 residents by 2010. The growth in tourism has fueled population increases in Williams over the past 30 years. However, being a small community, the population has not dramatically increased and remains under 5,000 residents today.

Transportation History

Williams was connected by railroad in the 1880s when the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad was built through town. This first train route allowed goods and people to easily travel to and from Williams boosting the local economy.

The rise of automobile travel in the early 20th century significantly impacted Williams when it became an important stop along the famous Route 66 highway. Thousands of motorists passed through town every year on trips between Chicago and Los Angeles. Restaurants, motels, gas stations and more sprung up in Williams to serve these travelers. Route 66 and the automobile brought further prosperity.

Today, Interstate 40 replaced Route 66 as the main east-west transportation route. The town is located along I-40 about 45 minutes west of Flagstaff. Williams still profits from tourism traffic off the interstate. The town maintains its railroad roots as well, with the Grand Canyon Railway once again ferrying visitors directly to the National Park from Williams just as it did over 100 years ago.

Tourism Industry

Williams, Arizona has become an important tourism hub, largely due to its proximity to the Grand Canyon. In the early 1900s, the town began marketing itself as the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon” as more visitors flocked to see the natural wonder.

The rise in tourism led to major growth for Williams. New hotels like the Fray Marcos Hotel and Grand Canyon Hotel sprang up to accommodate travelers. Restaurants and souvenir shops opened along the main street to cater to tourists. The town became a popular stop along the Santa Fe Railroad line for those en route to the Grand Canyon.

Some of the major attractions bringing visitors to Williams today include the Grand Canyon Railway, Bearizona wildlife park, and shopping in the historic downtown district. Annual events like the Route 66 Days festival, Fourth of July rodeo, and various car shows celebrate the town’s heritage and draw crowds.

Tourism remains the dominant industry in Williams. The town embraces its role as a gateway for Grand Canyon visitors with its “Main Street of the Grand Canyon” motto. From train rides to canyon tours, Williams offers the amenities and attractions to serve tourists while maintaining its historic small town charm.


Education has long been an important part of the community in Williams. The first schoolhouse was established in 1891, just a few years after the town was founded. It was a small one-room schoolhouse built to serve the handful of families living in the railroad town at the time.

As the population grew over the next few decades, additional schools were added. By the 1920s there were several elementary schools and Williams High School had been established. The high school held classes in a few different buildings over the years before moving into a dedicated facility in the 1950s.

Over time, schools were consolidated as transportation improved. Today, Williams Unified School District serves students in the Williams area with four schools—an elementary, intermediate, middle, and high school. Total enrollment is around 1,000 students.

Education continues to be a priority in Williams, with residents supportive of school funding initiatives and bond measures to maintain excellent facilities. Graduates have gone on to succeed in college and careers, carrying on the legacy of education in this northern Arizona town. The schools have provided a solid foundation for generations of Williams residents.

Notable Residents

Williams has been home to many notable figures throughout its history who have made important contributions to the town and the wider region.

One of the most famous former residents of Williams was John D. Lee, who established Lee’s Ferry on the nearby Colorado River in the 1870s. The ferry operated for many years and allowed passage across the dangerous river, playing an important economic role for northern Arizona. Lee was also a controversial figure due to his involvement with the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Several politicians called Williams home over the years. Rawghlie Stanford served as mayor of Williams during the 1950s and was an influential leader who oversaw many of the town’s infrastructure improvements and growth. Eunice Waggoner, the first female mayor of Williams, made history when she was elected in the 1980s.

On the arts side, Thomas Moran, the famous landscape painter, created some of his most renowned paintings during visits to the Grand Canyon and while staying in Williams. His paintings helped promote the natural beauty of the region to the rest of America. The town was also home to Lovey Lee, a celebrated Route 66 musician who brought her blues music to Williams and venues across northern Arizona.

Other notable residents included newspaper publisher C.C. Conger, businessman John A. Marshall who started the Marshall House Hotel, and Buckey O’Neill, a sheriff, judge, and Rough Rider who lived in Williams for a time. The town was shaped and impacted by many diverse residents over the decades.

Historic Sites

Williams, Arizona is home to numerous historic sites that offer a window into the city’s rich past. Some of the most notable historic attractions include:

The Grand Canyon Railway – One of the city’s most iconic landmarks, the Grand Canyon Railway first arrived in Williams in 1901 and began transporting passengers to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The railway fell into decline but was revived in 1989 and continues operating vintage diesel-electric locomotives. Riding the railway is a nostalgic way to visit the Grand Canyon.

Bearizona – This drive-thru wildlife park allows visitors to observe North American animals like black bears, wolves, bison and more up close from their vehicles. The park is situated on some of Williams’ most historic land.

Planes of Fame Air Museum – Located at the Williams-Grand Canyon Airport, this air museum has a large collection of restored aircraft on display. Visitors can explore the hangars and learn about the history of aviation in the region.

The Williams Historic District – This district encompasses a six-block area with over 50 historic buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Notable structures include the Old Bill Williams Mountain Men Museum, the Williams Visitor Center, and the Hilltop Motel sign which is a Route 66 icon.

Bearizona Wildlife Park – Located just outside Williams, this drive-thru zoo allows visitors to get an up-close look at native wildlife including black bears, bison, elk, wolves, and more. The park preserves some of the natural and historic land in the region.

Recent Developments

Williams has seen quite a bit of growth and development in recent years. The city has worked to diversify its economy beyond just tourism, helping add stability and opportunities. Some of the major recent developments include:

  • Revival of the lumber industry – The Kaibab National Forest has reopened, bringing back sustainable logging and a renewed lumber industry to the region. Several new lumber mills have opened in the past decade.
  • Growth in healthcare – The town has seen an aging population, leading to expansion of healthcare facilities. A new assisted living community was built in 2015 and a second hospital opened in 2018.
  • Tech startups – With a low cost of living and excellent quality of life, Williams has started attracting tech entrepreneurs. A small startup hub has emerged downtown in recent years.
  • New housing – To accommodate the growing population, several new housing developments have been constructed. This includes both single family homes on the outskirts of town as well as new downtown apartments and condos.
  • Road improvements – The main highways serving Williams have been expanded and improved, helping connect the town to larger cities. This improved access has been a boon for the economy.
  • Record tourism – Tourism continues to thrive, with the town setting new records for annual visitors in recent years. This provides a strong foundation for future growth.

With its diverse economy and renewed vitality, the future looks bright for Williams. The town seems poised for continued population growth and economic expansion in the years ahead.

Cultural Legacy

Williams has a unique cultural identity rooted in its history as a railroad town and gateway to the Grand Canyon. Though a small town, Williams has a rich tradition of storytelling, arts, and events that showcase its Western spirit.

Some of the folklore and stories that originate from Williams revolve around the railroad. The town was named after the famous mountain man, scout, and trapper William Sherley “Old Bill” Williams. According to legend, Old Bill stumbled upon the scenic area while scouting for the Santa Fe Railway and recommended it as a stop for the railroad. The railroad played a pivotal role in establishing Williams as a town.

Williams also shares in many of the folk tales of the Old West centered around cowboys, saloons, and outlaws. The downtown area tries to preserve this history with wooden sidewalks, historic buildings, and old-timey façades. Visitors can experience a taste of the Old West complete with reenactments, cowboy shootouts, and other performances.

For today’s cultural activities, Williams hosts a wide variety of annual events that attract visitors from around the state and country. Every summer they hold the Annual Route 66 Festival to honor its history as the “Gateway to the Mother Road.” Live music, a parade, car show, and food vendors line the streets. In December, the town hosts a popular Polar Express Train Ride which recreates the magic of the popular Christmas story. People also enjoy the annual rodeo, county fair, hot air balloon festival, and classic car show.

The town’s Western charm, stunning landscape, and unique heritage make it unlike anywhere else in Arizona. Williams has preserved its cultural roots while establishing itself as a destination for entertainment, leisure, and appreciating the beauty of Northern Arizona.

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