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Mon December 16, 2013

All Aboard! Real-Life Polar Express Chugs Through Michigan

Originally published on Tue December 17, 2013 5:12 pm

Every sight and sound of the magical Christmas train in the 2004 film The Polar Express is based on a real-life steam locomotive. The Pere Marquette 1225 has its own Christmas story to tell — and it involves a very close call with the scrapyard.

The train has been used for Christmastime passenger excursions since the late 1990s. In 2002, a Hollywood film crew came to Owosso, Mich., to capture the look and sound of the 400-ton behemoth, one of the biggest operating steam locomotives in the U.S.

The movie made the train a bigger tourist draw than it already was.

On one recent bitter-cold Friday night, hundreds of people are lining up on the platform outside Owosso's Steam Railroading Institute. They're waiting to ride a 66-year-old piece of American history.

"I think this is going to be so much fun," says first-timer Maya Holstad. "I'm just so excited right now. It is so cool!"

Longtime train lover Don West says he used to ride trains as a kid in Ohio. "It's a pleasure to see a train like that again," he says.

Finally, the train arrives: 16 feet tall, puffing huge blasts of steam. The smell of burning coal fills the air, and the ground literally shakes.

Dan Kirschman, who has volunteered here since 1987, says a steam engine isn't just a machine. "A steam locomotive is more like a living, breathing thing," he says. "As it's running, it has a pulse. It has a character."

Soon the train will leave for its hourlong run to the "North Pole," aka Ashley, Mich., where Santa Claus is waiting.

It's a magical scene, fit for a storybook or a movie — as long as you're not the one shoveling the coal, which the 1225 train crew still has to do during parts of the trip.

While steam locomotives are romantic, they're not very efficient, says Chief Mechanical Officer Kevin Mayer, so they seemed doomed to extinction when the diesel train era arrived in the 1950s.

"These things would just be in a big long line, and scrappers would be just going right down the line, cutting 'em up," Mayer says.

And so, the 1225 waited its turn for scrapping. But in 1957, a local college trustee decided to salvage one of these great titans for display.

Volunteer Bill Wilson knows the story as well as anyone: "They called the roundhouse foreman in New Buffalo and says, 'Find one that's in pretty good shape,' " he says.

So on the day before Christmas, the 1225 was spared.

"Went back, and he looked and yeah, 'We'll give 'em 1225, that's Christmas Day. It'll be a nice Christmas present.' The rest is history."

The engine ended up at the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, which eventually got it running again — until 2009, when a crew of engineers and impassioned volunteers worked to replace its aging boiler.

Four years later and nearly $1 million spent, it's back on the rails again, just in time for Christmas.

For the excited kids and adults who love the children's book or animated movie, staff and volunteers play up all the references. There's even someone pretending to be the ghostly Hobo character. And of course, there's nice hot chocolate once you get onboard.

Copyright 2013 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit http://michiganradio.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Lots of families will be reading or watching "The Polar Express" this week before Christmas. In the movie, every sight and sound of that magical Christmas train is based on real-life steam locomotive. As Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports, the Pere Marquette 1225 has its own Christmas story to tell and it involves a very close call with the scrap yard.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE)

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: The Pere Marquette 1225 is one of the biggest operating steam locomotives in the U.S. In 2002, Hollywood film crews came to Owosso, Michigan to capture the look and sound of this 400-ton behemoth. The movie made the 1225 a bigger tourist draw than it already was. On this bitter cold Friday night in December, hundreds of people line up on the platform outside the steam railroading museum to ride a 66-year-old piece of American history.

Here's first-timer, Maya Holstad.

MAYA HOLSTAD: I think this is going to be so much fun. I'm just so excited right now. It is so cool.

SAMILTON: And longtime train lover Don West.

DON WEST: When I was a kid, I used to ride the trains quite a bit in Ohio. It's a pleasure to see a train like that again.

SAMILTON: Finally, the train arrives, 16 feet tall, puffing huge blasts of steam. The smell of burning coal fills the air, and the ground literally shakes. Dan Kirschman has volunteered here since 1987 and he says a steam engine isn't just a machine.

DAN KIRSCHMAN: A steam locomotive is more like a living, breathing thing. As it's running, it has a pulse. It has a character.

SAMILTON: Soon the train will leave for its hour-long run to the "North Pole," aka Ashley, Mich. It's a magical scene, fit for a storybook or the cinema, as long as you're not the one shoveling the coal. Chief Mechanical Officer Kevin Mayer says, while steam locomotives are romantic, they're not very efficient so they seemed doomed to extinction when the diesel era arrived in the 1950s.

KEVIN MAYER: It basically came overnight and these things would just be in a big long line, and scrappers would be just going right down the line, cutting 'em up.

SAMILTON: And so, the 1225 waited its turn for scrapping. But in late 1957, a local college trustee decided to salvage one of these great titans for display. Volunteer Bill Wilson knows the story as well as anyone.

BILL WILSON: So they called the roundhouse foreman in New Buffalo and says, find one that's in pretty good shape.

SAMILTON: So on the day before Christmas, the 1225 was spared.

WILSON: Went back, and he looked and yeah, we'll give 'em 1225, that's Christmas Day. It'll be a nice Christmas present. The rest is history.

SAMILTON: The engine ended up at the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, which eventually got it running again, until 2009, when its aging boiler had to be replaced. Four years later and nearly $1 million spent, it's back on the rails again, just in time for Christmas.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE)

SAMILTON: And for those excited kids and adults who love the movie, staff and volunteers play up all the references. There's even someone who pretends to be the ghost of the Hobo character. And of course, there's nice hot chocolate once you get on board. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.