Williams, Ariz. —
You know how some days you’re really at your best and then you hit one where your efforts just don’t measure up. I had one of those. Jack and I were on a nine-day driving tour of Arizona, getting close to the end of the trip.
We were going to spend the night in Williams and catch the train to the Grand Canyon the next morning. Frankly, we were tired. We took a quick look at Williams, grabbed sandwiches at the local Homeland and holed up in the hotel. We wasted a chance to have a really good time in an interesting place — but I didn’t find it out until it was almost too late.
On the train to the Grand Canyon, I met Melissa Fizzell whose family owns Cowboy’s Service AZ Carriage Company in Williams. She offered me a free ride. Back from our trip to the canyon, the ticket was burning a hole in my pocket so Jack and I found one of the carriages and Melissa’s son Matthew and off we went.
The first people to populate the area were Native Americans. These were followed by the Spanish and, later, hunters and trappers. After the Civil War, sheepherders and cattle ranchers came to the region. The construction of the railroad in 1882 brought more workers in and the local lumber industry took off.
By the end of the 1800s, Williams was a busy, rowdy frontier town. Bars and brothels flourished and cowboys and railroad men alike found many ways to spend their pay. The Grand Canyon lay only 60 miles north but the trip, by carriage or buckboard, was rough and arduous. In 1901 a railroad spur going to the canyon was completed and Williams’ great tourist boom began.
By the late 1920s Route 66, running from Chicago to Los Angeles, was built and Williams sat right on the route. The automobile era had begun and in 1968 the train to the Grand Canyon folded. But Williams still had “The Mother Road” and was still considered “Gateway to the Grand Canyon.”
Disaster was not far behind. The interstate was replacing the historic road. The section bypassing Williams was the last piece of I-40 to be completed. On Oct. 13, 1984, the final bit of freeway was finished. And Williams was afraid it would be finished, too.
In 1989 the train from Williams to the Grand Canyon was resurrected.
Between rail and canyon fans and devotees of the Mother Road, Williams has become iconic, its downtown on the National Register of Historic Places. Though many of the buildings have been repurposed, visitors still see much of the town their grandparents saw.
It took Matt Fizzell to show it to me. The historic part of town stretches primarily along two streets — Railroad Avenue and Route 66.
On Route 66 going east we passed Cruisers Café 66. There was a party on the patio with live music. The 1936 gas station — the first full-service gas station in northern Arizona — now has a red 1947 Ford perched on the roof. It’s been a popular restaurant since 1953.
In the next block stands the 1891 Grand Canyon Hotel. Today it’s a boutique hotel and claims to be Arizona’s oldest hotel.
Catty-cornered across the street is an old gas station, now Pete’s Museum of Route 66 memories. This spot is associated with “Doc Hudson” in Disney’s “Cars.” Two blocks east is Rod’s Steak House, a staple on Route 66 since 1946. Steak dinners are its forte but the prime rib dip sandwich also gets raves.
Twisters, a fun, 50s-themed diner, is in the next block. Built in 1926, it originally was a Texaco station. Noted for great burgers, sodas, shakes and malts, it even serves such old-fashioned favorites as cherry phosphates. And this is the host home for Williams’ annual Cool Country Cruisin’ event — this year Aug. 9-11. The ultimate road show, participants range from pre-50s faves, muscle cars and street rods to contemporary cars.
Williams was one of five main towns used by the Disney Corporation in creating both of the “Cars’” movies and “Cars Land” at the theme parks. On Railroad Avenue, Matt pointed out Eddie’s Tires, the model for “Luigi’s Tires,” and John’s Auto Truck Repair, recreated as “Sarge’s Surplus.”
The block between First and Second Street was known as “Saloon Row” — the seat of sin in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The 1897 Tetzlaff Building housed a saloon and bordello and featured an elegant parlor, a two-story outhouse, pool and poker tables and even an opium den in the back of the building. Today it is the Red Garter Bed and Bakery. If you look carefully, you might see one of the former working girls in one of the upstairs windows.
If it hadn’t been for Matt, I would have known none of this. Since then I’ve found out a few more things. The Pine Country Restaurant should be named “Pie Country” for their dozens of home-made fresh daily pastries. Wild West Junction, a re-created Western town, may look hokey but there’s nothing imitation about their food — great steaks and fish and chips (made with mahi-mahi).
Looking for different cuisine? Dara Thai was named “Best of Arizona” by Arizona Highways Magazine.
And the next time I go back, I’m not going to miss Bearizona. This combination drive-through, walk-through, petting zoo animal attraction gets top ratings from visitors of all ages.
Just goes to show that first impressions are important. But they’re not always accurate. Lesson learned.
ELAINE WARNER is a travel writer based in Edmond.