While Williams, Arizona may not be a booming tourist center, the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon” deserves more than just a passing glance on the way to the Grand Canyon Railway station! You may be surprised to learn that this seemingly sleepy town once housed some rowdy, raucous denizens of the Wild West.
Before you take off to see the splendor of the Grand Canyon, take some time to soak up the history of a town named after one of its most frequent visitors, mountain man William “Old Bill” Sherley Williams. Founded in 1876, Williams, Arizona became a settlement for explorers, traders, and ranchers. These hard-working men liked to play hard, as well; hence, Williams became a haven for all sorts of play, with bordellos, gambling parlors and opium dens at the disposal of its rough-cut residents. The town maintained some semblance of order, however, by confining all the risque business to an area known as “Saloon Row”.
Williams earned the title of “Gateway to the Grand Canyon” in 1901, when the Santa Fe railroad extended from town out to the southern rim of the canyon. As the United States developed and changed, so did transportation, and in 1926, Route 66 made its way in to town. While automobiles gained momentum, the need for trains dwindled, and in 1968, rail service in Williams came to an end, for a while. When progress again reared its fickle head in 1984, Williams stretch of Route 66 was phased out to make way for the mega highway, I-40. However, Williams was situated for success, even with the loss of traffic. In the same year that Route 66 was bypassed, the downtown business district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tourism continued to flourish, and Williams being situated in close proximity to the natural wonder, in 1989, the Grand Canyon Railway was opened to carry visitors to the canyon.
Today, Williams strives to preserve its notorious past through active participation from area residents and business owners. Many of the original saloons, bordellos, and establishments of the past are being restored to their former glory, while housing new, less questionable businesses, such as shops, galleries and cafes. Establishments such as The Red Garter Inn & Bakery, housed in a former saloon/bordello built in 1897 by German tailor August Tetzlaff, have been renovated to bring back the intricate detail, and craftsmanship that make architecture of the old West so special. The Saloon Row Ghost Tour, which begins at the Red Garter Inn, will take you on a stroll through the historic, and haunted downtown business district.
Williams is ideally situated to allow for numerous day trips to northern Arizona’s amazing natural and cultural wonders. Places such as the Wupatki Indian Ruins, Sedona, Sunset Crater, and the Kaibab National Forest, all within easy reach, make this a great place to set up camp! For those who thrive on movement, hiking, horseback riding, and camping abound in the area. 18 holes of challenging golf, amidst towering Ponderosa pines, can be found at the Elephant Rocks Golf Municipal Course. In the winter, check out the Elk Ridge Ski and Outdoor Recreation Area (formerly Williams Ski Area) for a day of skiing, sledding or tubing. If spectating is more your style, the Cowpunchers Rodeo held in early August, may be to your liking.
If you’re looking to do more than just board a train, Williams offers some entertaining ways to pass the time. Flagstaff is about 35 miles east of Williams on Interstate 40.