Driving along the iconic Route 66 is an experience I’ll never tire of. The longest remaining stretch of the road that once stretched 2488 miles from Chicago, IL to Santa Monica, CA sits between Kingman and Seligman in Arizona. Dotted with long-deserted gas stations and dance halls, towns like Valentine, AZ are ghostly reminders of a once-prosperous time.
The last town bypassed by the freeway is Williams AZ, a quaint little place home to the Grand Canyon Railway.
Attracting sheep and cattle ranchers, the settlement was founded in 1876, taking the name of the famous mountain man, Bill Williams. In 1881 the first post office was established and on September 1, 1882 the railroad finally arrived. In no time at all, Williams became the shipping centre for the nearby ranching and lumber industries. In the beginning, Williams, like so many other towns of the Old West, gained a reputation as a rough and rowdy settlement filled with saloons, brothels, gambling houses and opium dens. Restricted by a town ordinance to Railroad Avenue’s “Saloon Row,” it didn’t stop the numerous cowboys, railroad men and lumberjacks from frequenting these many businesses. Even back in those days, early tourism began when people traveled to the Grand Canyon via buckboards and stagecoaches.
Today, they’re doing a rockin’ business with tourists coming from all over the world to start their railroad journey to the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel is just one of the many in Williams AZ that offers everything from boarding houses to motels to upscale hotels.
The town is making a determined effort to cater to Chinese tourists who don’t want to buy stuff made in China. One store has a whole room dedicated to things made in America – high-priced, high-quality take-homes. It’s not rocket science – why aren’t more places doing this? There’s no shortage of craftsmen and women in the states who can turn out crosses made from old wine barrels or wind-chimes made from parachute string and aluminium pipes or even design and print birthday cards.
But it’s not only the buildings that are interesting, it’s the people. Williams AZ has its fair share of characters that are remnants of time past. And the cemetery is an education.
Don’t miss this part of the world. Make the detour. Slow down. Get off the freeway. And take Route 66 to Williams AZ.