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Every sight and sound of the magical Christmas train in the 2004 film The Polar Express is based on a real-life steam locomotive. The Pere Marquette 1225 has its own Christmas story to tell — and it involves a very close call with the scrapyard.
The train has been used for Christmastime passenger excursions since the late 1990s. In 2002, a Hollywood film crew came to Owosso, Mich., to capture the look and sound of the 400-ton behemoth, one of the biggest operating steam locomotives in the U.S.
The movie made the train a bigger tourist draw than it already was.
On one recent bitter-cold Friday night, hundreds of people are lining up on the platform outside Owosso's Steam Railroading Institute. They're waiting to ride a 66-year-old piece of American history.
"I think this is going to be so much fun," says first-timer Maya Holstad. "I'm just so excited right now. It is so cool!"
Longtime train lover Don West says he used to ride trains as a kid in Ohio. "It's a pleasure to see a train like that again," he says.
Finally, the train arrives: 16 feet tall, puffing huge blasts of steam. The smell of burning coal fills the air, and the ground literally shakes.
Dan Kirschman, who has volunteered here since 1987, says a steam engine isn't just a machine. "A steam locomotive is more like a living, breathing thing," he says. "As it's running, it has a pulse. It has a character."
Soon the train will leave for its hourlong run to the "North Pole," aka Ashley, Mich., where Santa Claus is waiting.
It's a magical scene, fit for a storybook or a movie — as long as you're not the one shoveling the coal, which the 1225 train crew still has to do during parts of the trip.
While steam locomotives are romantic, they're not very efficient, says Chief Mechanical Officer Kevin Mayer, so they seemed doomed to extinction when the diesel train era arrived in the 1950s.
"These things would just be in a big long line, and scrappers would be just going right down the line, cutting 'em up," Mayer says.
And so, the 1225 waited its turn for scrapping. But in 1957, a local college trustee decided to salvage one of these great titans for display.
Volunteer Bill Wilson knows the story as well as anyone: "They called the roundhouse foreman in New Buffalo and says, 'Find one that's in pretty good shape,' " he says.
So on the day before Christmas, the 1225 was spared.
"Went back, and he looked and yeah, 'We'll give 'em 1225, that's Christmas Day. It'll be a nice Christmas present.' The rest is history."
The engine ended up at the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, which eventually got it running again — until 2009, when a crew of engineers and impassioned volunteers worked to replace its aging boiler.
Four years later and nearly $1 million spent, it's back on the rails again, just in time for Christmas.
For the excited kids and adults who love the children's book or animated movie, staff and volunteers play up all the references. There's even someone pretending to be the ghostly Hobo character. And of course, there's nice hot chocolate once you get onboard.