Chasing The Polar Express

One of my all-time favorite train stories is of the Berkshire class Lima 2-8-4 steam locomotive, #1225. The engine was built by the Lima Locomotive Company in Lima, Ohio and rolled out of the factory in November, 1941. It was built as one of twelve locos ordered by the Pere Marquette Railroad. The beautiful locomotive and tender carried 22,000 gallons of water and 22 tons of coal. (“Images of Rail Pere Marquette 1225” T.J. Gaffney and Dean Pyers for the Steam Railroading Institute, Arcadia Publishing, pp 22, 28-29.)

Many Berkshire-type locomotives were in service on the Pere Marquette Railroad and carried freight between Chicago, Grand Rapids, Detroit, and north to Saginaw, Michigan. In Grand Blanc, there is a railroad bridge still in use on the Grand Trunk/Canadian National Railroad. On the side of the bridge there is a large rusted steel plate where, if one looks closely, the name “Pere Marquette Railroad” can still be seen.

Steam locomotives carried war material throughout the United States during World War II. Soon after the war was over, diesel locomotives began replacing steam. “Although they had been expected to last for 50 years, the 39 locomotives of the three Pere Marquette Berkshire classes were retired after only 7-14 years of service. Most spent the 1950s forlorn and rusting in isolated yards in western Michigan, waiting for the inevitable scrapper’s torch.” (Gaffney/Pyers, p. 35)

In 1957, the 1225 was spared from being dismantled and sold for scrap by Michigan State University. The president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, which had acquired the Pere Marquette, contacted MSU and suggested one of the Berkshire locomotives be given to the university engineering deparment as a teaching tool. The 1225 was taken from the end of the scrap line and towed to MSU. (Gaffney/Pyers, p. 67). The MSU Railroad Club worked on the locomotive for many years. Finally, in October of 1975, the 1225 was fired for the first time in 24 years. (Gaffney/Pyers, p. 83)

In 1976, work by the MSU Railroad Club ended with the donation of the locomotive to the Michigan State Trust for Railway Preservation. Track was added to the short segment of rail holding the locomotive to connect with an active rail line. In February of 1983, the 1225 was towed to the old Ann Arbor Railroad complex in Owosso, Michigan. After another two years of hard work by volunteers of the MSTRP, the 1225 moved under its own power for the first time since it was left at the scrap yard. (Gaffney/Pyers, p.91)

Over several years, the 1225 pulled trains filled with steam locomotive enthusiasts on trips across the State of Michigan and beyond. “Trips to the North Pole” offered forty-minute rides to Chesaning, Michigan during the Christmas season. In 2004, Warner Brothers came to Owosso to record audio of the 1225 under operation for use in the new animated film, “The Polar Express,” starring Tom Hanks. Since then, the 1225 has been incredibly popular, offering trips on the Polar Express to Ashley, Michigan, also known as Christmas Town.

If you’re a Coffee State of Mind reader, you know about my love of trains. Model railroading has been a part of my life for over sixty years. I have spent years building HO scale railroads and am just as excited about trains now as I was at the beginning. There is nothing, however, in model railroading that comes close to the thrill of watching a live steam locomotive like the Berkshire 1225. We are fortunate to live within an hour’s drive of the Steam Railroading Institute, in Owosso, Michigan, where the 1225 lives.

We have been privileged to ride the Polar Express train twice. A few weeks ago, I drove to Owosso just to chase and film the 1225 at the Steam Railroading Institute and as it chugged to Christmas Town. I was not surprised to see lots of people standing around taking photos of the amazing locomotive. I waited on the siding by the 1225 and took lots of pictures. I stood across Washington Street as the train pulled out of the station. When the engine passed I was swallowed by smoke and got soot in my eyes. I laughed as I rubbed my eyes and ran for the car.

I had previously mapped out my trip, marking all of the places where the 1225 rails would intersect the road. I soon discovered many people were doing the same thing and a caravan of vehicles left the scene each time the engine passed.

I love watching trains. I am never disappointed when I have to wait at crossing gates for a train to pass. Watching the 1225 with it’s incredible power, steam and smoke exploding into the sky, makes me love trains even more. I think I was born at least ten years too late. I would love to have seen these giants pulling freight and passengers across fields and through towns. I know I’m not alone in my love for the 1225 and all other operating steam locomotives. More and more locos are being restored by clubs across the nation. It’s a love and fascination that is passing on to younger train enthusiasts.

2 thoughts on “Chasing The Polar Express

  1. Tim Moran

    I was privileged to be a member of the MSU Railroad Club and was at the first fire-up in 1975. The club members were extremely individualistic and gifted people who kept a fragile idea alive while taking time out of their studies and lives to learn old technology and techniques, to seek out retired steam railroaders to mine for information, and to negotiate with university officials who often wanted to shut the annoying little project down. We were lucky that Rollin Baker, the director of the MSU Museum, which owned the locomotive as an exhibit, was an eccentric enthusiast. Kevin P. Keefe has written an excellent book on the 1225.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello, Tim, thank you so much for contacting me. It is an honor, seriously, to commuicate with you. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to work on the 1225 in the early days. I have read the Gaffney/Pyers book Images of Rail: Pere Marquette 1225 twice. What an incredible journey, and what an amazing bit of fate for this great locomotive to be spared. It’s so great that people like yourself, Mr. Baker, and Mr. Keefe and the other members of the MSURC had the vision to take on such a worthy task. I have visited the Steam Railroading Institute several times and am in awe every time I see the 1225. I considered joining the club but it’s a bit too far away. Thank you, again, for commenting, and thank you for all you gave and believed to make this operating Berkshire a reality. Best to you.

      Liked by 1 person

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