Max Biegert Thelma Biegert
Chairman & CEO Secretary-Treasurer
Developers of the Grand Canyon Railway
May 6, 2018
BG: We’re here in beautiful Arizona, enjoying the sunshine alongside Max and Thelma Biegert. It’s good to be here, with you, in your beautiful home. This is more of a conversation. This isn’t a formal interview. So if anything comes up that you can’t remember—a fact or a date—this isn’t a quiz.
MB: I understand.
BG: So we’re really interested in your life story, especially about your connection to railroads. Both of you. For the National Railroad Hall of Fame, as two of the first inductees, I think this is very timely that we record your story. Really, we’re very pleased to be here. We were talking a little bit about your growing up in Nebraska. Could you talk a little bit about that? What was that like? Town of 300 people? 340?
MB: Yeah, 340 people, little town of Shickley, Nebraska. I was born in 1927, on a farm. You know what happened in the the 1930s….
MB: The drought, the dust storms, the recessions—all that. Grew up in the 1930s there. And in 1941, of course, the war started. I had two brothers that joined the Navy in 1943, and I joined in 1944, when I was seventeen.
BG: And did you have to lie about your age?
MB: No, my parents signed for me to get in.
BG: Oh, I see.
MB: What was interesting about that is, in late 1945, in July, I was on my way to Saipan for the invasion of Japan. We were out for a couple of days on a freighter. Now, the captain came on the upper deck and said, Hear this! There’s an announcement. There’s been a bomb dropped on Japan, unknown, and we don’t know what it is. And we were asked to hold out here. So we did a ten-mile circle for two days. He came on again and said, Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been
destroyed and the war is over. He turned the ship around and we headed back to San Francisco. So that was how close we came to getting into the invasion of Japan, which would’ve been a disaster.
BG: And so you were in the Navy?
MB: Yeah, Navy.
BG: And what was your position?
MB: Seaman, First Class.
BG: Seaman, First Class. Did you see any battle action?
MB: No I didn’t. I was seventeen when I got in, and I was on Treasure Island (in San Francisco Bay) for about a year. I was on the way to Saipan when it was all over. That was it. I wanted to go to sea. That’s why I got in the Navy; I wanted to see some of the the world. But they never took me anywhere.
BG: But then you got into aviation. How'd you get into that?
MB: I came out of the Navy in 1945, and I knew I didn’t want to farm. I didn’t want any part of that. So because of the G.I. Bill of Rights, I decided to learn to fly. I went to a little town there called Hebron, Nebraska, which was twenty miles from Shickley. I got my private license, my commercial license, my multi-engine license, and I started crop-dusting. That was interesting. I enjoyed that type of work. That evolved into large aircraft—B-17s. We had three of those we used. And we had DC-4s. We had a whole fleet of those. That was the airplane spraying thing, but I won’t go much into that because its lengthy. I grew up with airplanes, and I’ve flown for fifty years. I love flying. But we moved to Phoenix then, and we moved out here in 1956.
BG: Were you still in the crop-dusting business then?
MB: Yes. With the large aircraft. We got out of the row-crop stuff, with the small planes. We did a lot of contract work in Maine and the Mediterranean fruit fly project in Miami in 1956. Miami, Florida. That was quite a big job. The flying business kind of tapered off because the EPA got into it.
BG: Yeah, I wondered about that since the book, Silent Spring, came out. I wondered if that had an impact on your business.
MB: It did. Our first city spray job was in Lansing, Michigan, in 1954. Shortly after that, she[Rachel Carson] wrote the book about silent spring—the birds were not singing and so forth. That put a dent in the work we were doing, and I understood that. The spray we were using had a lot of DDT, and DDT was death on birds and fish. That business lasted quite a long time, but away from congested areas. More rangeland, forestry, that type of thing.
BG: I was reading your biography, and I just had read something about a new book out about Rachel Carson, and I wondered how that impacted your…
MB: She impacted things. We actually did a lot of work in the late 1970s, even, and then, finally, the EPA said, No more large aircraft. So we parked everything and that was the end of that.
BG: But you were already in Phoenix at that point?5MB: Yes. We moved here in 1956.
BG: But then you started a couple of other businesses, right?
MB: We started a business in Houston—childcare—which was totally unrelated to anything in my background. That business flourished. Starting in 1970—and I was reading a lot of articles in the magazines and in the Wall Street Journal explaining how women were going to work with no place to leave the children—we figured that would be a good venue to get into. So we did, and it worked very well. We ended up with sixty centers in five states, and we sold it to Aramark in Philadelphia. You may know who they are?
BG: Yeah, they’re very big in cafeterias and colleges. They do some museums, too.
MB: They wanted to get into that business (childcare) so they bought us, and that was the end of that.
BG: I see. Wasn’t there another business that involved the oil industry?
MB: Well, yes. When we were in the flying business, we had a chemical that was developed that would disperse oil spills. And they had a lot of oil spills, if you’ll remember, back in the 1970sand 1980s, when ships were having big problems. That thing in Alaska that happened. We developed a system that you could put into a C-130 (a big aircraft), and that could be installed in less than thirty minutes with no modifications to the airplane. You just slide it in and go. When people wanted to have something to control an oil spill, they didn’t have to buy an airplane; they could just buy this system and lease the aircraft. That made it really easy for them. So we sold a few of those systems worldwide. It didn’t turn into a big business because it was an insurance thing, and investors just wouldn’t invest in them. So that ended. How we got into the railroad business then: there was a gentleman here who was trying to develop the Grand Canyon Railway. It had lain dormant for twenty-something years, since 1968. They shut it down. And this young gentleman came to me in about 1980. He didn’t have the money. He had purchased the north twenty miles of the sixty-four miles from Williams to the Grand Canyon. I never really found out how he bought the north twenty miles of that track. He tried to develop that part, but, unfortunately for the people that tried, it wasn’t finance able. It was just a wild dream and they couldn’t get money. Finally, he sold me that north twenty miles of track, and we decided to go ahead and develop it. We had a good amount of talking to do, since all there was an old depot built in 1903in Williams, and the track was going then; they started the first track. Santa Fe had it in 1901, and they started building that up. We decided to go forward before we bought it, of course, and6we purchased the thing and we went to work. We bought the extra miles from Santa Fe—around sixty miles total—and went ahead to develop the thing. Took us about two years to rebuild the track, because it was growing-up with trees. We had to replace 35,000 ties because they were rotted, and 600 carloads of ballast we had to put in there, and we raised it up. We did a nice job on the rehabilitation of the track. It was perfect. Even the Santa Fe folks who rode on it said it was as good as their main line, which I didn’t really think it was, but it was pretty good.
BG: So this would’ve been the early 80s? Early 1980s?
MB: No, 1988 we did that purchase, and it was 1986, 1987 and 1988 that we did the rebuild.
BG: So the middle of the 1980s. Did you—over this time of different kinds of businesses—did you develop some principles or philosophy about business that may have contributed to your success?
MB: Yes. I’d say the main thing that we did when I got into a business—like the childcare business; I had no background in that type of thing at all, I mean, we had two children but didn’t have any daycare experience—I would hire people who were good at what we were trying to do, and then they would come in and help us get started. That’s how we did it. We did the same thing in the railway. There were a lot of folks who wanted to get into the steam end of the railway, because the old steam people loved that. So we had a lot of people coming wanting to work for us, so we picked out the cream of the crop, we felt, and that’s how we got into the railroad end of it.
BG: So who were some of the key people that you brought in?MB: A guy by the name of Gary Benjamin. He was in Indiana. He was with the 49-60—he knew that train really well. He came in, and we had a number of fellas that worked with him. He was the one who brought in the rest of the crew. We had people that were good at track maintenance,and engine maintenance, and diesel and steam as well as all of the classics. They really knew how to do it.
BG: The people who came before you, what did they do wrong? They didn’t understand the business?
MB: No, it was the lack of finance. The banks wouldn’t go at all. Luckily I had sold my business in Houston—the daycare business—and I had the money to go ahead and do it. Otherwise, it never would’ve happened.
BG: And the banks weren’t going to budge?MB: No, and they shouldn’t have. It was too big of a gamble.
BG: So at what point did you know you had made the right decision?
MB: I’ll tell you: when we ran the first train in 1991—eighty-eight years from the day Santa Feran their first train; we kind of did that as a starting point—we got started, and all we had was the railway. We had none of the other operations there. For seven years we fed that thing, and it lost a ton of money. It just wouldn’t make it. We started out with probably eighty to ninety thousand people round-trip, but that wasn’t enough to make it work. Finally, we built the hotel in 1996 and we turned it around. I wrote no more checks after1996. The hotel had 300 rooms—a nice-sized hotel—and people came there. They wanted a place to stay. The hotel was a natural. So now, what we had there was the railway, the hotel, the gift shops, the bars and an RV park that we had built—all of those things together worked to make it work, and it worked like a charm.
BG: And was that financed by you?
MB: Yeah, we did it all.
BG: So no bank financing?
MB: I banked financing for the hotel—20 million dollars to build the hotel. The bank came in for that; everything else we put in before.
BG: So you were still speaking to each other after all those years. What was your thought,Thelma, during that time?TB: It was a headache.
BG: Was it? Because you were involved in all of the business.
TB: Oh yeah. From the get-go. But our governor became very fond of Max and myself.
BG: Which governor was this?
MB: Rose Mofford. She was really a nice lady.
TB: She’d come out here for dinner—she was not married—and she helped us a great deal. You know, they were just eager for something to happen. That was a portion of the state of Arizona just sitting there, growing-up with weeds!
BG: And yet it could be a great tourist attraction.
MB: Williams—that’s where the south end of the track is—Williams was a railroad town all through the early 1920s and 1930s. The town was really in trouble. Half of the motels were boarded up with plywood; they weren’t open. The businesses weren’t doing well. And they really wanted that railway because they felt that was their thing tied to the outside world that would make it work, and they were right. They supported us well, and we got it going and it took off. It took the hotel to make the thing economically feasible, otherwise it never would’ve worked.
BG: That was still a big risk, though, to build that hotel.
MB: Yeah, it was.
BG: And you operated it yourself? Did you lease it out?
MB: We did. We operated it ourselves. But I’ll tell you what we did with that hotel. I had the architects design it in three 100-room segments. So we built the center core of the hotel and the first 100 rooms, and when they got full—when we’d have 40% overage—then we’d build the second one, and then the third, and by 1997 we had it all finished. Man, it took off. Everything worked from that point on.
BG: That’s a great story.
MB: It was.
BG: What was the peak attendance for the railroad?
MB: About 250,000 a year. We got it up to that. I’ll tell you the thing that’s interesting: a guy and a gal came to me—it was right at the year 2000, as I recall—and they said, We think we should do a Polar Express . The Polar Express—the original one—was really going wild at that time. So we started that. We went into the forest twenty miles north of town and built a so-called“North Pole” out there. And we had a million lights on the building fronts, like the front of a movie set-up, and we had buildings and all these lights and we had Santa Claus with the reindeer and the whole thing.
BG: In the middle of the desert!
MB: No, no, it was forest there.
BG: That’s right.
MB: We set that up the first year, and we advertised it, and we had about 6,000 people that rode.They’d come in and go out twenty miles and come back and so forth. What was good about that:that was in December and January, when we were almost shut down, and we’d still fill the hotel.Everything was full. It really worked. But the deal on the Polar Express was interesting. When we sold that six or seven years later, we were doing 80,000. Now they’re up to 95,000-100,000during that six-week period between December and January.
BG: Did you have a marketing plan? Did you have a promotional plan?
MB: Well yeah, we had a marketing department and we just advertised it. What was interesting:people would ride the train with their children—that was always a children thing—and we’d get on there, and we’d have the book that was written, and people would read that going up and back. And we had a silver bell. You know the silver bell story—if you’re a believer you get a bell—and we gave everybody a bell, and it just really took off. It was unbelievable how that worked.
BG: Well, you created a lot of memories, and then those children come back with their children.
MB: You know what would happen? When the people got off the train—they knew that we had space problems—they’d buy their tickets for the next year. It was that popular.
BG: And they’d come from all over the world?
TB: Not really.
MB: Mostly Arizona and California, our two markets.
BG: That’s a very healthy attendance though. Two-hundred and fifty thousand a year.
MB: Oh yes, those numbers were fantastic. I remember one evening. Thelma and I were there,and there was a light snow coming down. In the city, there was a couple that had a couple of nice big horses, and they had a sleigh. That sleigh was sitting out front, and we stood up there and10watched this, and it was snowing. At 7:30 PM the first train would come in, and then the second train would load and go. Here were 2,000 people on that platform at 8:00 O’clock at night, and it was ten above zero and snowing. It was really a picture!
BG: That’s great.
MB: You’d see a postcard picture of something like that.
BG: Well that’s got to be very gratifying to you, in addition to the business side.
TB: It was.MB: Just to see that happening was really exciting.
BG: What are your other favorite memories of running the railroad. First of all, did you everdream you’d be running a railroad?TB: Never. I’d never been on a train!
BG: You hadn’t?
TB: No, I don’t think so.
MB: You know, yes you did! I put you on a train to go to Kansas City out of Lincoln.
TB: Really, well thank you! [laughs all around]MB: I think that was your first train ride, probably.
BG: So what did you feel? Did you ever have any doubts that it wasn’t going to take off?
TB: About 24 hours a day. You’ve got everything you own in the world there, and you don’tknow if it’s going to succeed or not. Your friends—and especially our families—would say,What are you doing? Are you crazy? And we’d say, Well …. Right?
BG: But you kept at it.
MB: Well, we had to.
TB: We were buried!
MB: If we had folded, we would’ve gotten nothing for it. We had to make it work.
TB: And it was fun.
MB: When you have to make something happen, you can usually do it if you really think youhave to. And we did.
BG: Did you find your connections to other short-line railroads? Other tourist railroads. Did you become part of the community?
MB: We knew those people, but there was no tie.
TB: They were uninterested.
BG: Just your own…
MB: That was it right there.TB: The whole world said it would never work.
MB: But you see, what made our deal work so well was the Grand Canyon. That was the draw.Without the canyon it never would’ve worked.
BG: Now what is the future? I know that every once in a while I’ll read a news article, or I’ll see something in the paper that there’s more development planned for the Grand Canyon. What’s going on there?
MB: There’s a lot of things that are potentially to happen there. Like in Tusayan, which is a little village at the South rim, I think there’s some new things going in there. I’ve kind of lost contact.See, we sold that in 2007, so it’s been gone, now, for ten years. But Williams is thriving.Williams has been a going town since then. We pumped 250,000 people in there. For example:we had our restaurant—it was a kind of commissary thing, to feed them—and we built that restaurant in 1996 or 1997, just after the hotel opened.We built it just between where the people got off of the train and went to the parking lot.And they would just walk right by that restaurant, and they wouldn’t stop in! We couldn’t figure that out. So, in our sales, we would sell them the food—breakfast and dinner—as part of the12package, and of course that was easy to sell. From that point on, in the last year—you won’t guess this—we served 500,000 meals in that last year we had that restaurant.
MB: So it was a big part of the success.
BG: And you ran that? You didn’t outsource that?
MB: No, we ran everything. We didn’t outsource anything. We kept control.
BG: That’s unusual.
MB: And we had the gunfighters in the morning and all that, and the train robbery on the track halfway up to the canyon. It really worked. It was a beautiful little company.
BG: So what made you decide that it was time to sell it?
MB: To sell? Well, we sold that in 2007.
BG: So you’d been involved with it for twenty years.
MB: We were 80-years old, and it was time to let it go.
BG: And was this home built by that time?
MB: Yes, we built this house in 1997. It was time to quit. We were tired, and we were getting old.
BG: Well, it’s quite a story. I’m really happy that you could tell us, and we can share it, now, as part of the hall of fame.MB: Well thank you, it’s been fun. A great experience.(Transition)
BG: Julie, did I miss anything? Something I should’ve asked that I didn’t ask?
JK: No. It’s delightful. Since we have Bob here, I would like to do a little more musical chairs,and let the two of you reminisce a little bit about your meeting, and just have the two of you on.MB: Alright.
BG: I will step aside.
JK: And when you’re done, Bob, I’ve got something that I want to do…. I won’t script this.Maybe just a few minutes of the two of you remembering how you met?BB: Well, actually, Jodie, you should get over here since you were there. Get over here!
JK: If we do that, we’re going to have to get cozy.
BB: We love to get cozy.(Interview—Bob Bondi)
JK: So Bob, talk about how you first met, and your remembrances.
BB: Well, I remember Mr. Deedra, who submitted your name as an application. We sat there and said, What is the Grand Canyon Railroad? I don’t know anything about it . So we got on the internet and started looking it over and said, Gosh, why is there a train there? Couldn’t even understand it. And all of a sudden I understood that it was a feature to take you to the South rim of the Grand Canyon, and that it had failed over the years, and all of a sudden somebody made this thing work.I talked to Don a few times, and he said, You really just need to talk to these folks. I really think they’re candidates for the National Railroad Hall of Fame. So we gave Mr.Simon—who did, in those days, the review process to work things up—we gave him the application, and we asked him to give us the history of all this. He came back with a smashing history about you guys: how you came from Houston and that you had a daycare center and some of the background as far as your aviator experience. I was just so amazed. I said, gosh, let’s run this up to the people who would vote on this kind of thing and see if it makes sense.Everybody said, This is such an entrepreneurial spirit that made this thing happen! And the significance, as we saw it, was so incredible that you revived, if not electrified Williams as a community that, before you guys came there, was nothing. I think Jodie would agree, that when we came to Williams to induct you into the hall of fame, even though you felt like there weren’t a lot of people there, every time we stopped in a little store, every time we went to one of the rooms, when we checked-in, any time we talked to anybody from the community—they knew you, they loved you, they understood what you had done for the community. I don’t know, what was it? Five, six hundred people you employed?
MB: Five hundred at the peak of our season. And then in the winters it would go down some, but between four and five hundred.
BB: At least in my heart—and I know Jodie and I have talked about it so many times—it just peaked in our thoughts on what a wonderful experience you must have gone through, to make this all happen. The love you must’ve had for that area, that community—to risk everything!
MB: It was quite a risk.
TB: A long shot.
MB: It was a long shot, it was. We just felt that with over four million people driving right by,going to the Grand Canyon, it had to work.BB: Just had to have the right hook.
MB: After five or six years I began to wonder if we were right or not. But finally, the hotel was the answer to the economic end of it. Without the hotel it would not have worked.
BB: It seemed like you, Max, did a lot of the front-end stuff. And Thelma, you made the back-end, or the office side work like a charm.
TB: I had to try hard some days.
BB: Jodie and I work that way in our little property management building business that we have in Illinois, and also in Atlanta. I just sat there and said, God, this is so gratifying to see a couple make the difference.
MB: It was quite an experience.TB: But we don’t want to do it again, okay? [laughs all around]
MB: No, we don’t want to do it again, but we were proud of what happened there.
BB: It was magical to not only meet you back in 2008 (I think it was 2008), but also the experience we had just having dinner to get to know you guys. And again, I guess the irony of it is, although we seem to have talked a couple times a year ever since then, this is only the second time we’ve all been together.
BB: And I feel like we’ve never been apart.
MB: It’s been good. It’s been a good experience, and you folks coming along really was the frosting on the cake.
BB: It was so delightful meeting your sons and your daughter and your grandchildren. They were all there when we made the presentation. It was a special moment. Then we had the joy of getting on the train and going up to the Grand Canyon. I think it was Jodie’s first time up there. I don’t know if you know this story, but I kept telling her about the glass overhang at the Grand Canyon. I said, Jodie, you gotta go walk over the canyon. And Jodie said, I’m never gonna do it,I’m never gonna do it. I finally talked her into it. A lot of magical things, and we attributed it all to you.
MB: Well, thank you.BB: We went back and ran a better business as a result of meeting you guys.
MB: It was fun. It was a great experience for us too. The other businesses: we were in the flying business, totally unrelated; daycare, completely unrelated to it; and yet, this one was the highlight of our career. The way it succeeded, and the way the public responded to it. They loved it.
BB: How special was it, that the governor of the state of Arizona focused on this being such an important thing. She added not only to the joy of doing the project, but the power of that office must’ve helped people focus on what was there.
MB: Rose Mofford—a great lady and our governor—she would come up about once every month and spend the day with the two of us. She just loved that thing. She’d come up and sit there and talk and tell stories, and she and Thelma would tell stories.
TB: When she was a young girl, there was only one cafe. Remember that one out there?
MB: Yeah, on the corner.
TB: She’d call and say, Can I come up ? And I’d say, Oh, to the governor? I think so! So she would come up and we’d go to the cafe, and they adored that little woman.
MB: She was very, very popular in Williams. They really loved her.
TB: And then finally—and this was kind of bold of me—we’d have a dinner party. You know,she didn’t have family, and I’d say, We’re having a dinner party. You wanna come? She sat right there [gestures to chair]. I loved her.
MB: She was a huge supporter.
BB: Well, she must’ve seen and understood that so many people had passed on this situation.And for the state of Arizona—not only that region but the whole state—you made one of the most significant statements for this region by making this happen.
MB: Yeah, I agree with that. It did a lot. Williams just turned into a real going town, and it has been ever since.
BB: I’ve always felt that for any business I ran, in many ways I was the least important person involved. If you put things together correctly, and if you leave them and they continue to run well, you’ve put a stamp on that that is unique. The Biegert star of approval continues on.
MB: That’s true.
BB: Williams—they run it like you would’ve run it.MB: I’m really happy to see the way it’s succeeded. I don’t know the numbers now.
TB: I wish we did.
MB: But I’m sure they’re an extension of what we had. They bought it ten years ago. I’m sure those numbers are up there, considerably higher. Last I heard, on the Polar Express they were over 100,000 riders.
BB: Isn’t that fabulous.
MB: You know, the funny part about that was, we did it in the month of December because it was Christmas. Then we had to push it up into November, because we couldn’t get them all in!We ran two trains then. It ended up that they’re way up into the middle of November now and into the middle of January! Who would’ve thought it could work after Christmas, but it is working. That surprised us. It goes on for weeks after Christmas. First of February is when they shut it down, I believe.
BB: Julie explained to you early on that one of the concepts from the National Railroad Hall of Fame is the Engines of Freedom, which is the entrepreneurial spirit that makes this country so great. No two people could show that, or exhibit that any greater than both of you.
MB: Thank you. That’s quite a compliment. We appreciate it.
BB: You’re emblematic of what it’s all about.(End of Interview—Medallion Ceremony)
MB: I want to show you our little museum we have back there.
JK: We brought you something that we hope, you feel, is worthy of your museum. As I mentioned, you were some of the very first people that we ever inducted. Because of that, as the process evolved, we did not have these at the time. Everyone who’s inducted into the hall of fame, now, receives a medallion.
TB: Oh, lovely!
JK: And we have brought you your own. And these will fasten into the box for display, or you can wear them.MB: Well that’s very nice. Thank you.
JK: And Max, this one has your name on it.
BG: I think we’ve gotta put it on, and have at least one picture.
JK: We’d definitely like to get a picture. And Thelma, we have one for you as well.
TB: Thank you.
MB: Well, I feel like we’re at the olympics.
TB: I know it! [laughs all around] This is as close as we’ll get to the olympics.
JK: And yours also. It has your name on the back.
TB: Great. Is that spelled right?
JK: Oh please…. Is it?
TB: [laughs] It is! [laughs all around] She almost had cardiac arrest
!MB: Are you trying to give somebody a heart attack?
BB: I don’t think we could’ve gotten Julie back to Galesburg. [laughs all around]
MB: That wasn’t very nice.
JK: That was my fear! I looked over and over, making sure— Okay, I think I have this right.
TB: This is lovely. We appreciate it.
JK: It’s our pleasure to be able to bring these to you.
MB: This really makes us stand proud.
TB: It does indeed.