Natural Wanders - North Pole Express offers a magical holiday ride for all ages

Art Weber

        Every child in the crowd hoped to hear their name called by Santa for the honor of receiving the first gift of Christmas. The faces beamed with joy, hands were clasped, all eyes were riveted on Santa and Mrs. Claus.
        It had all the trappings of a scene straight out of “The Polar Express,” except that this was the town of Ashley, a small mid-Michigan village that remakes itself every November and December into a welcoming Country Christmas Village.
        But the train was there, the train that had brought the gathered crowd of more than 1,000. Their journey began at the Steam Railroading Institute (SRI) in Owosso, a small historic city 35 miles northeast of Lansing.
        An army of volunteers filled roles at the station and on the train. They served as crossing guards, hosts, role players and entertainers. There were hobos, stewards, conductors and engineers, all brimming with the spirit of Christmas and eager to show participants a great time on this, the North Pole Express.
        There are Christmas trains here and there all over the country, many of them very good. Still, most of them really don’t have a special destination, and are likely not exuding a different era and pulled by a steam engine. This North Pole Express and the activities that surround it is different, really different. Others try to channel the magic of the Polar Express; this train comes closest to succeeding.
        Let’s face it, it’s not possible to duplicate the Polar Express experience. There’s no hobo around a campfire on top of the train, no long slides across expanses of ice. The stewards don’t throw cups of hot chocolate and the children don’t walk on top of the train – at least we hope not.
        “That Polar Express you see in the movie and in the book isn’t real,” Riece Shattuck, a volunteer steward for the car named Dancer, said as he prepared a tray of cups of hot chocolate for the passengers. “This train’s real; it’s the real express.”
        There’s more truth in that statement than most people realize, and it’s much more than the magic to be seen in the children’s eyes and heard in the adult laughter.
        The proof is right there in Ashley for everyone to see, behind the crowd and just down the street from Santa and a bit behind the gathered crowd.
        The train’s headlight and rising steam are impossible to miss. The monstrous Pere Marquette 1225 steam locomotive stood with fifteen passenger cars in tow, hissing and puffing. It was ready, fully energized with the stoked steaming boiler. Pistons and wheels ready to respond to the engineer’s throttle. It would leave shortly after Santa’s special announcements.
        That big steam locomotive isn’t just sort of like the locomotive in “The Polar Express” – both the book and movie – it is the very engine that inspired the story.
        “The Polar Express” author, Chris Van Allsburg, saw the huge locomotive and it was the inspiration for the story. No doubt the engine’s number – 1225 – seeded the idea.
        Since then, the celebrated 78-year-old locomotive has been fully restored and is the centerpiece of the Steam Railroading Institute. Though the Institute sponsors steamtrain excursions and programs throughout the year, the PM1225 is reserved for special occasions – it runs only a few times each year and for the five straight weekends in November and December when it is the embodiment of the Polar Express.
        If you want to get a bit of the giant locomotive experience load the movie into your DVD player, close your eyes and listen to the train sounds. The sound effects of that locomotive, the cars and equipment is the real deal, recorded by a sound crew about the PM1225 for use in the movie.
        It’s the real deal. You can see it in the children’s faces.
        As the SRI says, “Let the Old Times Roll!”
        For more information, visit SRI at All North Pole Express trips for this season have been sold out for months. Steamtrain excursions are offered on a regular basis. Check the website for information on when next season’s tickets will go on sale.


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