Facebook Page

The Polar Express -- Pere Marquette 1225 ~ November 26th, 2005

by Elizabeth Guenzler

Before 2004, when it was made into an Oscar-nominated film, I had never heard of Chris van Allsburg's 1985 children's story. However, upon learning how central Pere Marquette 2-8-4 1225 was to the story, it made me want to see and ride behind this now-famous Lima Locomotive Works steam engine. The opportunity came in late November 2005 and was my first train trip in snow.

Bob and I spent Thanksgiving in Arizona with his family then flew to Detroit Thanksgiving night, rented a car and stayed near the airport. The next day, we drove to Durand and found our way to Union Station, although it was not well sign-posted.

Durand Union Station History

The Village of Vernon Center (now Durand) was built up around the railroads in the late 1850's. After the rapid expansion of the railroad in the 1870's, the Village incorporated itself as Durand in 1887. Durand Union Station was designed by Spier and Rohms and originally built in 1903. Eighteen months afterward, it was almost completely destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1905.

This was a very busy station as the Grand Trunk Western and Ann Arbor Railroads crossed at grade there. During the early 1900's when the railroad industry was at its peak, 42 passenger trains, 22 mail trains and 78 freight trains passed through Durand daily. Durand Union Station handled approximately 3,000 passengers per day, making it a prospering hub of the industry.

America came into maturity riding the rails. The railroad helped build, shape and define the America we live in today. Railroads helped open the frontiers to settlement, and soon after, to industrialization. The decline of rail traffic started at the end of World War I and culminated in 1974 when Grand Trunk determined it could no longer justify the cost of maintaining the station. Abandoned, the old depot's destruction appeared imminent, but the community rallied to save it and in 1979, the City purchased it for $1.00. Since then, it has become the State Railroad History Museum.

Durand Union Station itself reminds us of the golden years of railroading. The Depot captures the rich essence of railroading during its reign of glory. The building contained a formal dining room as well as a snack counter complete with swivel stools and a rack of comic books selling for a nickel each, you could also buy a daily paper from a nearby newsboy. A large postal box collected the mail, which was sent by rail to its destination. The second floor of the building held railroad offices and a sleeping area for train crews. The lower level of the massive depot, once the second busiest train station in Michigan, has been renovated to its original grandeur. Terrazzo floors gleam, beautiful oak-trimmed windows provide views of the surrounding tracks, and the restored ticket cage is reminiscent of the turn of the century. Because of its unusual Chateau Romanesque architecture, the Durand Depot has gained prominence as one of the most photographed train stations in America.

Passengers still walk the corridors of the depot to board their train. The Amtrak Blue Water eastbound to Port Huron and westbound to Chicago make daily stops at the Durand Union Station. Thirty or more freight trains pass the station daily providing for excitement and photo opportunities for rail fans on a regular basis. All the activity proves that while waiting on the depot platform, people can still experience the sights and sounds of railroading and imagine what it was like decades ago.

The depot is also the State Railroad History Museum, an educational and entertaining source of Michigan's rich railroad history. The museum gallery features new exhibits several times per year to pay tribute to the colorful heritage of the railroader, and to the contribution of Michigan's railroads to lumbering, mining, agriculture and industry. The Museum Information Center and Archives contains a wealth of railroad information for rail enthusiasts, researchers and genealogists. Included in the collection are photographs, ledgers, technical railroad information, union materials and a variety of other documents pertaining to railroading in Michigan.

Grand Trunk Western 4-6-2 5632 on display at the Railway History Museum.

"Last Call" plaque in front of GTW 5632.

Michigan Historic Site marker describing the Knights Templar Special.

Grand Tunk Western baggage car 8812.

Wig-wag crossing signal.

Switch tower at the Railway History Museum.

Sign pointing to Durand Union Station.

Durand Union Station Museum and former Grand Trunk Western caboose 75003.

The famous Durand Union Station.

Grand Trunk Western caboose 75003.

A Canadian National eastbound freight passes by Union Station.

Grand Trunk Western GP9 4632 (ex. GTW 4427, nee GTW 1751), the Durand switcher. We then went inside, browsed the museum and acquired some souvenirs before driving to Owosso and visiting the Steam Railroading Institute for the first time. Here we caught the 16:00 departure of 1225 and both of us took photographs of this now-famous steam engine.

Pere Marquette 1225 History

The 1225 was built in October 1941 by the Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, Ohio for the Pere Marquette Railway. The locomotive was used for ten years between Detroit, Toledo, Flint, Saginaw, Grand Rapids and Chicago; hauling fast freight for the products of Michigan factories and farms, including war when Detroit was the "Arsenal of Democracy", producing huge volumes of vehicles, aircraft, and armaments. The locomotive is one of 39 2-8-4 or Berkshire types ordered by the Pere Marquette. The superpower design was developed between 1925 and 1934 and used by over half a dozen railroads to haul freight at maximum speed and minimum cost.

The Pere Marquette Railway merged with the Chesapeake and Ohio in 1947, but the 1225 continued in service until its retirement in 1951 in favour of diesel locomotives. In 1957, the locomotive was saved with the help of Forest Akers; Dodge Motors's Vice President and Michigan State University Trustee, who saw it as a real piece of machinery for Engineering students to study. Displayed as an icon of the steam-era, it sat at MSU until 1969, when a group of students took an interest in the locomotive. The Michigan State University Railroad Club was formed at that time with the ambitious goal of restoring 1225 and using it to power excursion trains that would bring passengers to football games at the university. In 1982, under the newly-evolved Michigan State Trust for Railway Preservation Inc, the donated locomotive was moved to the former Ann Arbor Railroad steam backshop in Owosso where the restoration continued until 1985 when it moved under its own power for the first in 34 years.

Today the Pere Marquette 1225 is owned, maintained and operated by the Steam Railroading Institute. It's part of the National Register of Historic Structures and is renowned for its role in the 2004 Warner Brothers Christmas Classic "The Polar Express". 1225's blueprints were used as the prototype for the locomotive image as well as its sounds to bring the train in the animated film to life!

Pere Marquette 2-8-4 1225 at Owosso.

Pere Marquette 2-8-4 1225 arriving at the SRI station in Owosso.

Close-up of 1225 in the snow.

The steam engine number on the tender.

Pere Marquette 2-8-4 1225 leaving the SRI yard on the 16:00 trip bound for Chesaning.

Leaving Owosso.

Tuscola and Saginaw Bay GP35 385 (nee Ann Arbor Railroad 385) following the steam train to Chesaning in order to lead it back since there is no wye nor turntable.

About to cross South Washington in Owosso. We had dinner at the Ponderosa Steak House and returned to the hotel.

November 26th

After a good breakfast at Bob Evans', we drove back to the Steam Railroading Institute in plenty of time for our 10:00 ride. Beforehand, there were several items to photograph.

Two Michigan Artrain cars and a Chicago and North Western baggage car on storage tracks.

Michigan Artrain PPCX 1614 baggage dorm (ex. AMTK 1614, exx. AMTK 1404, nee US Army hospital car 89552).

PPCX 1610 baggage dorm (ex. AMTK 1610, exx. AMTK 1426, nee US Army hospital car 89516).

MSTX baggage/coach 462 (built for Chesapeake and Ohio).

Former Baltimore and Ohio coach 1615 used as offices by the SRI. Before coming to Owosso, it was a bank in Traverse City.

Former Chesapeake and Ohio 10-6 sleeper 2624 "City of Ashland", now used by SRI as an exhibit car and crew dormitory on long trips.

Pere Marquette 1225 makes its way to the boarding area for our departure.

My ticket for today's ride. We departed at 10:10 and were all given hot chocolate and I spent some of the time in the vestibule but it was rather chilly. I decided to wait for the return trip to take photographs but did purchase several souvenirs.

Pere Marquette 1225 at North Pole Village in Chesaning during the layover.

Broad-side views of the steam engine.

Steam engine running gear.

The builder's plate of Pere Marquette 1225.

The steam engine performing a blowdown.

Myself in front of Pere Marquette 1225. It was then time to take pictures of the consist.

MSTX 76-seat coach 5581 (nee VIA 5581). Built 1954.

MSTX coach 762 (ex. VIA 762, exx. CN cafe-coach 3025, nee CN coach 5567). Built 1954.

MSTX 76-seat coach 5576 (nee VIA 5576). Built 1954.

MSTX baggage car 1363 (ex. AMTK 1363, nee US Army troop kitchen car 89639). Built 1953.

MSTX 76-seat coach 5646 (nee VIA coach 5646). Built 1954.

BMCX 52-seat coach 856 (ex. AMTK 6031, exx AMTK 3220, nee Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac 856). Built 1947 for Seaboard Air Line trains Silver Meteor and Silver Comet. At the time of my riding the train, it was owned by the Bluewater Chapter NRHS.

Pere Marquette 1225 getting the train ready for departure.

Tuscola and Saginaw Bay GP35 385, nee Ann Arbor Railroad 385 "The Elimra".

Pere Marquette caboose A909 at Chesaning.

Ann Arbor Railroad caboose 2839 brings up the markers.

Polar Express layout at the Chesaning fairgrounds building which had food stalls, a carousel, a slide, Santa, a model railroad and a puppet show. It was then time to re-board for the return trip.

Views along the route back to Owosso.

Letting off steam after returning.

Pere Marquette 1225 in the early afternoon light at Owosso. We departed and went to Lansing and decided to have dinner at Clara's which is in the former Michigan Central station. Later that evening, we returned to Owosso for a night-time picture.

Bob's photo of Pere Marquette 1225 at night. After that, we returned to the hotel. It was decidedly warmer the next morning and it started to rain. Before we left Owosso for the final time, we decided to catch the morning train leaving.

Pere Marquette 2-8-4 1225 leads the Polar Express out of Owosso.

The rear of the November 27th train.

The two cabooses bringing up the markers.

Tuscola and Saginaw Bay GP35 385 following the steam train on its morning trip. We drove back to Detroit, returned the rental car and flew to Denver then changed planes for Seattle where I returned to Victoria via the Coho Ferry the next day.

It had been a wonderful experience riding behind Pere Marquette 1225 for the first time and being at the Steam Railroading Institute. Little did I know then that in four years later in 2009, a major event would be held on those grounds, but that will be the subject of a future travelogue.