In 1879, an unassuming 19-year old man from St. Louis, Missouri, stepped off a train in Arizona Territory. Drawn by the adventure and opportunities that the young territory offered, over the next two decades, William “Buckey” O’Neill would help shape the early history of Arizona by dabbling in a number of different business enterprises and serving in various political offices. His nickname supposedly came from the fact that he often “bucked the odds” at the card game faro, though his luck would unfortunately run out too soon.
Upon his arrival in Arizona, O’Neill started working for newspapers across the territory, ending up in Prescott, the territorial capital. While running his own newspaper he also practiced law and served as a district court recorder, probate judge, superintendent of schools, and tax assessor, all before the age of 30. He later served as the mayor of Prescott and the sheriff of Yavapai County as well. In 1894 and 1896 he ran as a Populist in an attempt to become the territorial delegate to Congress, losing both times.
O’Neill was an energetic young man who is credited with being a key force in promoting the development of the Grand Canyon. In between odd jobs and political campaigns, from 1891-1897 O’Neill tried his hand at mining at the Canyon. His prospecting led him to a copper deposit about 14 miles south of present-day Grand Canyon Village, but like most other miners at the canyon, he soon realized that the cost of shipping the ore meant it was not a profitable venture. In the meantime, O’Neill roamed the Grand Canyon area, befriending locals.
During his time at the Canyon, O’Neill built two log structures: a cabin beside the early Bright Angel Hotel which he used as an office, and a bunkhouse a few yards back among the Ponderosa pines.
O’Neill recognized the economic potential of the area and helped organized locals in an attempt to improve transportation and access to the Canyon. He was not the first to envision a railroad to the Canyon, but previous schemes had failed due to what seemed like insurmountable costs. O’Neill put his energy and enthusiasm to good use, lobbying tirelessly for funds to get the railroad built. In the meantime he attracted new miners and other business interests, giving an economic incentive to start a railroad.
In 1897 he finally convinced local businessmen to put up enough money to finance the Santa Fe and Grand Canyon Railroad Company, of which he became president. They began construction on a spur that would run from the Santa Fe Railroad’s transcontinental line at Williams, Arizona to O’Neill’s cabin at the South Rim.
In 1898 the people of Prescott elected O’Neill as their mayor, but he immediately stepped down to join Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, who were going to fight in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. During part of the Battle of San Juan Hill, the fight that made Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders internationally famous, a sniper’s bullet tore through O’Neill’s neck. He died at the age of 38 after a short but eventful life.
Construction on the railroad he helped bring to the area did not begin until two years after his death, since no other individual had the energy or charisma to ensure it was completed. When it was just 10 miles short of reaching the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the company went bankrupt. Therefore, the Santa Fe Railway bought the company out of bankruptcy, renamed it the Grand Canyon Railway, and finished laying track in 1901.
In 1935 Mary Jane Elizabeth Colter, working as an architect for the Fred Harvey Company, remodeled O’Neill’s cabin to serve as a guest cottage. Today it is part of the Bright Angel Cabin complex, and is considered the oldest continuously standing structure on the rim. Modern visitors can still stay in the Buckey O’Neill cabin, the most expensive of the historic cabins for rent at Bright Angel Lodge. It features a fireplace, wet bar, and a clear view of the canyon, though tourists tend to peek inside because of a interpretive panel describing its historic significance out front. In early 2007, it was part of a $2 million renovation that included new carpeting, lighting, bathroom facilities, and having its wood-burning fireplace fitted with piping to allow the installation of a gas log set.
O’Neill Butte, which towers over the South Kaibab Trail within the Grand Canyon, is named after this colorful character in Grand Canyon history. O’Neill is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Written By Sarah Bohl Gerke
- Anderson, Michael F. Living at the Edge: Explorers, Exploiters and Settlers of the Grand Canyon Region. Grand Canyon Association, 1998.
- Anderson, Michael. Polishing the Jewel: An Administrative History of Grand Canyon National Park. GCA, 2000.
- Billingsley, George H., Earle E. Spamer, and Dove Menkes. Quest for the Pillar of Gold: The Mines and Miners of the Grand Canyon. GCA, 1997.