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.

Christmas Is: Hot Chocolate!

Anyone who has read a post or two of mine may know of my life-long fascination with trains real and miniature. I have dreamed of living in the days when steam locomotives carried freight and passengers across the country. I was born just a few years too late.

Imagine my excitement when I discovered 1225, the Berkshire class Baldwin Steam Locomotive owned by the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, Michigan.

The beautiful locomotive was destined for the scrap pile many years ago when it was rescued by a group of dreamers who hoped to restore it to steam glory. Although the original rescuers did not see their hopes fulfilled, they were the first step in a long journey that ultimately gave the incredibly restored 1225 to the thousands of steam train fans waiting for a ride, including me. Little did those early dreamers know that one day this special locomotive would be used to provide the train sound track for the popular Christmas movie, “The Polar Express.”

I have enjoyed the incredible thrill of riding the “Polar Express” twice. The first time, our daughter and her two young sons and I took the trip. Several years ago my wife and I rode the train to the small Christmas Village in Ashley, Michigan. What a thrill to feel the power of the huge locomotive pulling us to our destination.

If you have seen The Polar Express, you are very familiar with the scene in the rail car with all the children in their pajamas as the dancing and singing waiters serve piping hot chocolate to all the kids. Christmas is hot chocolate!

Hot chocolate has been part of our family forever, and probably yours too. In the old days real hot chocolate was made by heating milk in a pan on the stove, and then adding chocolate syrup or Nestle’s Quik. My favorite was made by mixing Hershey’s Cocoa powder with sugar, stirring in a little warm milk and then adding it to the pan of steaming hot milk. Delicious!

I remember many Sunday nights after church my grandmother came home with us while our parents went out with friends. We always enjoyed hot chocolate and toast while watching Bonanza! For you young ones, Bonanza was a weekly television series about the Cartwright family, Ben (the father), Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe (played by Michael Landon of Little House on the Prairie fame.)

I am such a fan of hot chocolate, I even enjoy it from vending machines. Now that’s a hard-core hot chocolate lover. I hate to admit this, but I have even ordered hot chocolate at Starbucks! Don’t tell anyone. No one goes to Starbucks for hot chocolate, but I have.

Like all mochas from Starbucks, hot chocolate has to be enjoyed hot-hot. There is no such thing as good tepid hot chocolate. For a while, every time I stopped at Starbucks I ordered my mocha at 190 degrees. Literally! One time the barista handed me my cup and said, “Here’s your insanely hot mocha.” Now the “extra-hot” option is hot enough.

After thirty-one years in my previous career, I returned to university to acquire teacher certification which meant 1 1/2 years of classes including a year of student teaching at a middle school. Upon graduation I continued substitute teaching and returned to school again to complete a Master’s Degree in Educational and Professional Counseling. I had the incredible privilege of being a middle school counselor for five years before retiring for real. I told the principle who hired me I felt like I had been preparing for this position for the last forty years. My wife and I retired from the same school district, and both of us miss our family of colleagues at school.

One of the joys we experienced at school was serving the most amazing hot chocolate I have ever had. Each Christmas our lead secretary prepared for us what actually should be its own food group. This raised the term “hot chocolate” to a whole new level. The ingredients included a bag of dark chocolate chips, a can of sweetened condensed milk, a quart of whipping cream, and two gallons of whole milk. It was my privilege to serve each of our teachers a steaming cup of this tasty drink topped with peppermint marsh mellows. The crock-pot of hot chocolate was heating up in our back office, so it was my responsibility, obviously, to do a taste-check periodically since my office was just a few steps away.

Many years ago, my wife’s mother introduced us to home-made hot chocolate mix which we still use. It’s easy to make and we love it. I pour two packages of Carnation Powdered Milk in a large decorative jar. I then add a little more than half of a large jar of Coffee-Mate, then a bag of Ghirardelli Hot Chocolate mix. I shake it up in the jar until everything is mixed together. We keep a scoop in the jar. Boiling water added to one-third cup of mix (give or take according to taste) will give you a delicious cup of hot chocolate. Dropping a small candy-cane into the cup adds just the right amount of peppermint flavor.

Christmas has a magical way of bringing us back to the simple things that matter. Hot chocolate is one of those things that, if you let it, will help you rekindle what makes Christmas Christmas.

Here’s to another cup of great hot chocolate!