North Pole Express whistles in holiday season

OWOSSO — The North Pole Express holiday excursion, brought to you by the Steam Railroading Institute, is so popular it almost immediately sells out, year after year.

The main attraction is the train itself. The Pere Marquette 1225, one of the few steam-powered train engines in America that’s still operating, is the model for the train in the hit movie “The Polar Express.”

The steam engine is huge, its clouds of steam magnificent and it effectively evokes the nostalgic past. It’s a safe bet that’s why it was chosen for the film, along with its number (12/25), which coincidentally is the date of Christmas Day.

Every winter, the Pere Marquette is decked out in full retro holiday decoration and, with help from 100 volunteers, chugs into Ashley’s Country Christmas in Ashley and back to Owosso.

Hundreds of travelers, some of them relaxing in their pajamas, get to hear carol singers, play card games, sip hot cocoa and munch on snacks, and meet Santa Claus himself upon their arrival in Ashley.

“It gets me every time,” SRI Executive Director Kimberly Springsdorf said. “Watching the faces of the passengers — multiple generations of families sharing this unique experience together, their smiles and laughter — it’s magical.”

Once in Ashley, visitors wander into a Christmas village featuring such free events as face-painting, animal balloons, visits with Santa and Mrs. Claus, stage and street entertainment, horse-drawn wagon rides, an animal petting farm, reindeer and much more.

Other activities are wood-carving demonstrations, pony rides, and carnival rides and games.

Guests do well to bring an appetite. They can choose among such culinary offerings as elephant ears, deep fried Oreo cookies, hot cider, homemade candy canes, fresh-roasted almonds, turkey sandwiches, walking tacos, hot dogs, soups and Czech baked goods.

Guests can also take advantage of many shopping opportunities in the village.

But it’s the Pere Marquette that earns the lion’s share of attention. It has a commanding presence, standing 16 feet tall, 100 feet long and weighing more than 400 tons.

The steam engine was cherished but inactive — little more than a relic from a bygone era — for many years. A half a century ago, Michigan State University formed the MSU Railroad Club with the aim of getting the Pere Marquette running again.

The torch was passed from MSU to SRI when the 1225 was moved to Owosso. Through fundraising and other efforts, over a period of years SRI was able to restore the steam engine to its original glory.

The train stays up and running through SRI ticket sales from excursions, demonstrations, special events and tours, and donations from individuals and organizations.

“You can’t imagine the time, effort and investment it takes to maintain the 1225,” Springsdorf said. “When a part breaks on this engine, you don’t just run down to a shop. You either have to borrow it or build it. From absolutely every aspect, running this engine is a labor of love.”

A whole lot of people love SRI, and many of them are volunteers who want the SRI to keep being a living, breathing history experience for future generations. If interested in volunteering, call (989) 720-3954.

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