Red Feather Founder RP Thurston
RFL Motel & Tri-Motor Aircraft
R.P. “Bob” Thurston first moved to Williams from Ash Fork in 1927. He was previously employed as a signalman and at one time, had worked for all three of the state’s railroads. After his move to Williams, he began selling automobiles at Bill Williams Ford. According to his daughter, Roberta Fain, he also took care of the Garage. When the owners of the garage went on vacation, they never returned and R.P. started running it.
In 1929, “Bob” Thurston built the Whiting Brothers Hotel next to the Sultana Bar, and also constructed 18 stone cottages, complete with hot and cold running water.
He worked for Shell Oil, and at one time, owned a service station, garage, car dealership, and hotel.
According to Bill Thurston, in a taped interview conducted on August 26, 1981, his dad was Mayor of Williams when he was “framed for bootlegging.” Bill said that his dad was the middle man and bought a bottle of whiskey for two men, who turned out to be Federal agents. They turned him in to plead guilty of bootlegging, but R.P. refused. He spent six months in the Prescott county jail for his offense.
During his incarceration, he still ran the city of Williams, and every two weeks, city officials took the payroll to him for his signature. Elections came up while he was still in jail, and R.P. “Bob” Thurston was re-elected as Mayor of Williams by the residents. In 1932, prohibition was repealed.
In the early 1930’s he bought a ranch located 12 miles west of the canyon and moved his family there in 1935. Bob loved the area, and decide to buy the only private land closest to the park, which is now Tusayan.
Fain said that her father bought the “old Reed place,” which was an old homestead consisting of 160 acres. Her mother also bought property adjacent to her husband’s, which was located where the Grand Canyon National Park Airport now stands.
According to Bob’s granddaughter, Bessie Thurston, old Tusayan was first located where the Canyon Pines trailer park now stands. The dirt road from Williams to the Canyon followed the railroad tracks. Later, her grandfather persuaded the state to build the highway right through the middle of his property so that he would have highway frontage on both sides of the new road.
The first businesses constructed in Tusayan around 1956-1957 were a Shell station and the Tusayan Steak House, which was a bar and a café combined. They were built by R.P. Thurston and his long-time friend Jim Kennedy. Kennedy was reportedly one of the first employees of Grand Canyon Airlines.
The twosome then built the Red Feather lodge in 1963-1964, the first hotel built outside the National Park’s boundaries in Tusayan. “Bo” Fain, Thurston’s grandson, recalls that the Red Feather was built without any formal blue prints.
In the 1960’s, Bob convinced the State to build Grand Canyon National Park Airport in its present location. They had originally intended to build near what is now Valle. The forest service wanted the airport to be closer than Valle, and they worked a trade with Bess Thurston (Bob’s wife) for her land and the airport was constructed a half mile south of Tusayan.
R.P. Thurston’s son Bill, and his wife, Bonnie, arrived in Tusayan about the same time as the Red Feather lodge was being built. Bonnie ran the office and served as the hotel’s only maid. Bill hauled water back and forth from Williams.
Bonnie and Bill, who recently passed away, had three children: John, Bess, and Clarinda, who are the only Thurston’s who still reside in Tusayan.
Bess chuckled, “It’s a wonder how any of us kids were ever conceived! Dad was always driving a truck, and mom was working at the hotel – their paths hardly ever crossed!”
© Williams-Grand Canyon News - October 19, 1989