This article was originally published on December 7, 2021 on The Restless Viking website.
The 1225 Berkshire Steam Locomotive, built in 1941 exhaled soot and steam as she chugged along the rails.
When Chuck (DaViking) mentioned that he’d secured tickets on ‘The North Pole Express’ steam train, I was giddy! This was the steam locomotive that had been used in “The Polar Express” children’s book and movie! As a nanny and throughout my early elementary teaching career, I have always gotten goosebumps when I’ve read Chris VanAllsburg’s book published in 1985. Whenever I have watched the movie which was released in 2004, my skin has shivered with emotion. I knew I wasn’t the only person to feel a close connection to this locomotive! Little did I know that we’d meet some vivacious volunteers on our excursion to the North Pole!
Once we were seated, Sue, Owosso’s mayor pro tem, cheerfully served us hot cocoa. Arnie and Steve, original members of the Michigan State University Railroad Club, spent time sharing their stories. Peggy, who was taking pictures of passengers, loves lighthouses and Lowell. Patrick, a friend, who works as a professional railroad engineer, was volunteering that afternoon. Patrick led us on a tour after our ride. Join us on our jolly jaunt to the North Pole!
“All Aboard!” – Our Ride To The North Pole
Alex, twelve years old, said he has been assisting riders since he was six.
Alex confidently approached us, “Do you know which car you’re riding in?” he asked. “The Mistletoe” Chuck responded with a smile. “It’s the last car, way back there.” Alex gestured down the 1,100 foot distance. “There’s a golf cart you can take if you don’t want to walk that far.” He kindly offered. “Oh,” Chuck raised his brow, “I thought the golf cart was for people who needed assistance.” Alex replied, “Naw. It’s for anyone.” He breathed deeply, “It’s a long way down there.” He turned and was off to help another group of travelers. I am always impressed with confident kids! Soon we heard Alex call out, “All Aboard!”
The Mistletoe Car
As soon as we were seated, this bright-light of a lady appeared with our first serving of hot chocolate. DaViking made an off hand comment as she walked by us. “Oh,” she turned, “every car has ONE of them, and I think you’re mine today.” She giggled and distributed our refreshment. There were a variety of cookies and cheese cubes, too.
Sue Osika, Owosso’s mayor pro tem, graciously served us as a cheerful volunteer!
After introducing ourselves, Sue charmingly offered us her contact information so we could organize a personal tour around Owosso. “It’s a fascinating town of 15,800.” She chimed. DaViking and I will be learning more about Owosso in the near future and sharing it all with you soon! Thanks, Sue! The North Pole Express was definitely a community effort!
The train ride to our destination was one hour and fifteen minutes.
As I sipped my hot chocolate, the child in me surfaced with smiles and shivers. I beamed as the conductor neared our seats!
Our Conductor – Reinhard Hurt
Holiday happiness filled the Mistletoe car, as our conductor approached. Sue had explained that Reinhard Hurt, our conductor, has been credited with being a model for the Polar Express movie. As many know, Tom Hanks, played many roles in the animated film, including the conductor. Reinhard’s suited charm shows through in the motion picture.
Steve -A Founding MSU Railroad Club Member
Sue grabbed a man, clad in a yellow safety vest, who was walking through the car, “Steve, you need to meet these two.” Leading Steve by his shoulders she brought him face to face with us. “They are doing a blog.” Sue turned to us, “Steve’s one of the founding members of the MSU Railroad Club.” She bustled off to care for other patrons. Steve seemed to be caught a bit off guard, but good-naturedly scooted into the seat next to me.
Steve and his wife live in Cadillac.
After retirement from Meijer, he regularly comes to Owosso to volunteer with his beloved 1225.
“It must be something to see this locomotive running smoothly after investing so much time into it.” We marveled. “Yup. It’s been over 50 years.” Steve replied and looked at DaViking, “Shoot, I’ve got t-shirts older than you.” He chuckled. “My West Shaw Hall one.” (He referred to his dorm at MSU) The Pere Marquette 1225 used to be on display on Michigan State University’s campus. Steve has revered this mechanical marvel since his ‘long haired, fifteen minutes of rebellion” days.
I was thrilled to be able to hear this history first hand. Steve simply confirmed, “Through all the ups and downs we had the right people at the right time. It was by benevolent grace that this has worked out so well.” He continued, “The original guys passed down their knowledge.” He was telling us about his two daughters and his grand daughter when a man in a suit stopped by our table.
Arnie – A Founding MSU Railroad Club Member
It was Arnie. We had met him earlier, outside and hadn’t immediately recognized him as he came our way. He had found us! I’d say we were in the right place at the right time. What an astonishing occasion to have two original members of the MSU Railroad Club sharing their memories!
Arnie was a founding member of the MSU Railroad Club.
We’d first met Arnie while we outside waiting in line. (Pictured Right)
Arnie had reminisced about the time when four MSU Railroad Club members were sitting around a card table in the early 70’s. On this Saturday night the team decided that the 1225 engine could be used to bring fans to football games. Why not? Right? “It only took us 18 years to get it to run.” Arnie explained. That night the foursome had crept to the locomotive, added water, diesel soaked rags and coal to fired her up. In the early morning hours the group blew the whistle. This brought “a lot of attention, including the police.” Arnie smiled.
As The North Pole Express slowed to a chugging crawl, we thanked Arnie and Steve for their ‘behind the curtain’ stories of this special miraculous engine. It had been an honor to spend time with the pair of original MSU Railroad Club members! I stood in awe of their fifty-year dedication to this locomotive. You guessed it! I had goosebumps again!
Arriving At The North Pole (AKA Ashley’s Old Country Christmas Village)
As people poured from the train cars, Ashley’s Old Country Christmas Village (AKA The North Pole) came to life as it was flooded with joyous, jam-packed fun! Carnival rides for youngsters clicked in time with the holiday tunes that encircled the two block festival. The fire department had been transformed into “The Hobo Café” where one could purchase a meal. In another building there was a magic show and carnival games. We would have two hours to shop and play before Santa would give “the first gift of Christmas.” Then, we’d board the locomotive and head back to Owosso.
“Sawdust Santa Workshop” was where children could add wheels to their choice of a train car. (bottom left)
Santa gave “the first gift of Christmas” to a smiling youngster right before we needed to board The North Pole Express.
Peggy, the photographer, asked where we were from. We both answered, “Lowell.” “Oh,” Peggy surprised us with another connection. “I grew up in Lowell and visit my 93 year old mother often.” “Well, I’m Martha Hayden and . . ” I began to introduce ourselves, when Peggy startled and stated, “You’re Chuck!” We all shook hands. “My mom saves the Ledger for me.” Peggy smiled. (Some of our articles have been printed in the Lowell Ledger.) She also knew Chuck from his video about his work weekend on the light house, Spectacle Reef. Peggy had volunteered at the crib light house last summer 2021, the week before DaViking had. She’d seen the video on YouTube.
Coincidentally The North Pole Express is numbered 1225! (Just like the date: December 25th)
I was amazed by another cool connection! The whistle blew and we needed to board. With cheerful waves we headed to the Mistletoe car.
Our Return Trip
At our table we found sleigh bells from Santa, hot chocolate mugs and my favorite treat, caramel corn! My youthfulness rose to the surface with a flutter as I opened my snack.
The electricity wasn’t working. The modern diesel engine at the end of the train was suppose to bring us back, but it wasn’t fully functioning. As I contently munched on my treat, I watched workers outside. I could hear the fuse box being shut down and then re-started.
The staff remained cheerful and recalled a time when a different train had blocked the track for their return trip, so within an hour, the Owosso school bus drivers (on a weekend) mobilized and headed to a crossing near Ashley. Passengers sang Christmas carols on the buses as they were shuttled back to the city. By the time I’d finished the first bag of popcorn, it was decided that the steam engine would push us back to Owosso.
As we stepped off the train, we met with Patrick McKinstry. DaViking had met Patrick McKinstry last summer at the Spectacle Reef light house. At that time I was impressed with Patrick and his ingenuity, enthusiasm and vision with the remodeling of the crib light. I was about to add to my awe of Patrick! I learned that he is a full time Grand Elk short line engineer and volunteers with the Pere Marquette 1225. He had arrived in Owosso to assist with the evening run, but made time to give us a personal tour.
As Patrick took us on a tour of the rail yard and passenger cars, he was greeted warmly by everyone!
Several called him, “Conductor Fluffy!”
Patrick shared a story about a time when he been the conductor for the 1225. Patrick had gotten a young freckled boy a “conductor” pin for the boy’s hat. Patrick had the youngster, who’d come from Canada, assist him in punching tickets throughout the train. This lad clung to Patrick’s leg wanting to stay and be a conductor, FOREVER! It’s these little moments that can shape a child’s life long passion.
The Round-a-Bout and Workshop
This round-a-bout can easily spin a train car onto any track so the car can be brought into a workshop space.
With the round-a-bout behind Chuck and Patrick, the pair discussed how different train cars are repaired.
DaViking was giving off an Indiana Jones vibe.
The Polar Express Movie
“The film guys (for the movie The Polar Express) shot footage of Rob sliding down our pile of coal, over and over!” Patrick bubbled. “Our Kevin was the model for the large engineer.” Patrick continued, “They (Warner Brothers) used the blue prints of 1225 for the movie. They came here and recorded the sounds for the movie, too.” The producers had taped the sound of coal being shoveled into the nine square foot firebox, the squealing wheels, the creaking doors and the chugging steam. “Did you know that Chris VanAllsburg used to climb on the 1225 when it stood static on MSU’s campus? The story goes that his family always attended home football games, but Chris didn’t like sports and preferred to climb on the locomotive.”
Patrick’s vigorous volunteerism, knowledge and enthusiasm warmed my heart! His dedication and devotion to preserving history ranks as an exemplary standard for all of us to follow!
The Repair Foreman Car
The coal heat hung heavily in the air when we entered the Repair Foreman Car. Steve was relaxing as the workers had a couple of hours before the evening jaunt.
With a hop in his step, Patrick asked if we wanted to walk through the train. Each passenger car carried it’s own story of acquisition and renovation. Patrick rattled dates and facts about each transport vehicle. Several volunteers were vacuuming and preparing for the evening run of The North Pole Express. Every person we encountered straightened with respect and warmly greeted Patrick as he entered the carriage.
Each car was unique and decorated for the holiday.
Patrick knew all the facts and stories about each car as we cruised through.
The Caboose X2
Patrick patiently answered my questions about the caboose and brakemen.
“Why do they have seats way up high?” I wondered. “Well, the brakemen needed to be able to see the tops of the cars. These windows open, so they could jump out and run across the top of the train and apply the brakes.”
“How does one apply the brakes? I don’t understand how the brakes on a train work.” I shrugged. “Come out here, Poppins.” Patrick directed me outside the caboose to a wheel. “By turning this, it activates the brakes.” Patrick explained technical details of the mechanics, “The box cars have the brake wheels on the top.”
The Quick History
The Pere Marquette had been built in October of 1941 and was immediately used for hauling freight during World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad had donated the tired locomotive to Michigan State University in 1957 with the blessing of trustee, Forest Akers, a CEO for Dodge Motor Company.
In 1969 a group of ambitious students decided restoring the steam train 1225 in order to transport MSU fans to football games would be fun and a way to honor history. The MSU Railroad Club was formed. (We had the honor of meeting Arnie and Steve!) With the daunting task of renovation, this group evolved into the 501 (c) (3) non-profit, Michigan State Trust for Railway Preservation by 1979.
From 1982-1985 Owosso’s former Ann Arbor Railroad Steam Backshop became 1225’s home as the tedious process of restoring the Pere Marquette to her glory. After four decades of dedication, the Pere Marquette 1225 earned the proud status of being “one of the largest pieces of operating steam equipment.”
The Steam Railroad Institute (SRI) and the Michigan State Trust for Railroad Preservation (MSTRP) hold ownership of a large collection of historic train equipment. Currently the group’s inventory includes two steam locomotives, one diesel locomotive, a fleet of passenger cars and many historical artifacts.
Chris VanAllsburg – Author and Illustrator of “The Polar Express”
As a child Chris VanAllsburg’s family had attended many Michigan State University football games. This steam engine 1225, The Pere Marquette, stood proudly near the engineering building on the corner of Trowbridge and Harrison. Chris had climbed on the locomotive as part of his ritual. The VanAllsburg family had owned the ice cream shop Jersey Junction in East Grand Rapids. There had been a train that traveled in a looped track above our heads as we slurped our sweet treats. I have often wondered if Chris had requested the train adornment. At 36 years old in1985 The Polar Express was published by Chris VanAllsburg, a graduate of East Grand Rapids High School. The movie by the same name was released by Warner Brothers on Oct. 30, 2004.
The North Pole Express was loaded with 15-18 tons of coal.
The engine burns one ton of coal every twelve miles along with thousands of gallons of water creating 245 PSI
in order to operate the two cylinder engine.
The Pere Marquette 1225 has earned the title “one of the largest pieces of operating steam equipment” and it is worth a look-see! I encourage you to visit and better yet ride this steam locomotive.
Chuck and Martha Hayden, aka The Viking and Poppins, enjoy going on adventures off the beaten path. They also like to share their explorations with others. The Viking is a retired expedition leader while Poppins is a retired teacher. The two offer independent views of their journeys showcasing places, people, and cultures as they explore the world. Visit and follow them on their website and social media accounts. Website | Facebook | Instagram |YouTube