"Robbins Furniture Factory"

 An Excerpt from Railroading In America Magazine, Edition 10

  You find yourself in rural Michigan, in the middle of a dead but peaceful country town. It's quiet and cold enough with the wind chill that any normal person would wait inside, but the anticipation has been building since you got here. The decorations around the rural Michigan town were surprisingly elegant, with reindeer that would scare tourists passing by if it weren’t for the colored lights around their antlers. Suddenly, there it was, for a second: the faint but clear sound of a whistle. At first, you think you’re just hearing things, or the bitter cold is hindering your logic. Slowly, the sleepy town starts to come to life, with festive music playing and crowds of anxious, yet excited people showing up by the second. Just as the final remnants of light slip away from the purple sky, a headlight appears and pierces the settling fog. You can’t deny the sound of a bell as the atmosphere around you intensifies. Engineer Barney expertly quills the whistle so that its sound hangs in the air and the surrounding flatlands, and leaves a chill in your spine. From your vantage point by a large oak tree, you can’t believe your eyes when the light pole adjacent to the tracks backlights the steam, along with the locomotive’s presence along and the adoring crowd produces the most magical and impactful image you have ever seen. Pere Marquette 1225 brings her train to a stop, and has just brought approximately 900 passengers to the North Pole. This, is the North Pole Express.

   Those luck enough to be in Ashley, Michigan during the select weekends in November and December have witnessed this scene being repeated just over 100 times since 2006. The popularity and spreading fame for Pere Marquette 1225 is the result of the locomotive being the inspiration for the iconic Warner Bros. movie, The Polar Express. Coincidentally, the road number 1225 matches the date of perhaps the most popular holiday of the year: Christmas. Starting in Owosso, home of the Steam Railroading Institute, the sold-out “North Pole Express” whisks 900 passengers through the scenic Michigan countryside. Many riders dress up in their pajamas in order to immerse themselves into the experience, and on-board attractions delight passengers, such as a hobo or harmonica player. Upon arrival in the town of Ashley, Michigan, the passengers disembark from their approximately hour long train ride and partake in the Ashley Country Christmas Festival. Even those not riding the North Pole Express can join in on the fun, for a small admission fee, which is figured into the ticket price for passengers. Many attractions keep everyone entertained, such as an ice carver, man on stilts, Mr. and Mrs. Claus, food vendors, and perhaps the most coveted event: the giving of the “First Gift of Christmas”. After a layover of two hours, the satisfied passengers reboard the elegant passenger cars, which are actually named after Santa’s reindeer, and ride back to Owosso. Ridership has steadily increased every year, while drawing those from all around the country to small-town Michigan. Thanks to the efforts of the Steam Railroading Institute, Great Lakes Central Railroad, and the municipalities of both Owosso and Ashley, thousands of people can escape their everyday lives for a while and filly live in the spirit of Christmas.

   The “North Pole Express” also attracts railfans from around the globe, who pursue the 1225 as it runs Northwest. At first glance, the landscape between Owosso and Ashley seems barren and boring, but if one looks closely, many interesting places to photograph or film the locomotive can be noted. For the weekend of December 15th and 16th, I found myself chasing the locomotive with several friends. As if witnessing the 1225 in action isn’t great enough, doing it with dear friends made the experience much more enjoyable, and I now have stories that I will never forget. For more on my own chase, head over to www.riamindustryheadlines.com. In addition to chasing the locomotive, I was granted access to the “Christmas Engine” while she and her crew waited overnight to haul more passengers the next day. The locomotive needed to be turned on the 90-foot New Buffalo Turntable, which were originally used by the Pere Marquette in New Buffalo, Michigan. Berkshires like the 1225 and others often utilized this turntable, and upon arrival at the Steam Railroading Institute, the turntable was extended to 100 feet, in order to easier accommodate 1225 and other large equipment. During the Holiday Season, the turntable is decorated in Christmas lights, and truly looks impressive at night. After 1225 eased onto the turntable and was turned, she paused for a brief moment for the small group of volunteers and authorized photographers. Then, the engine eased forward onto a track near the engine house, and was effectively parked for the night. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised when I was invited into the cab, and the engine crew was very friendly, and I truly admire their ability to make me feel like an old friend, even though this was my first time up there. Due to the late hour, I thanked everyone and went to get some rest before the next day.

   To my delight, Sunday morning proved to be quite foggy. I ended up visiting two locations that I had shot at the previous day, and ended my experience with the Steam Railroading Institute and 1225 at Carland’s vintage grain elevator, which is the shot of 1225 that everyone needs to get. For several minutes before the train arrived, the exhaust could be heard as the locomotive works to get its train up to track speed. As the grimy drivers flew by me, I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of the appearance of a workaday locomotive. There’s just such an authentic vibe that no clean engine can provide.

   At the end of the weekend, I had a newfound appreciation for the Steam Railroading Institute, and the hard work and dedication required to make the North Pole Express a smashing success. The great folks of the SRI made me feel like I was a longtime friend, and their hospitality surpassed all of my expectations. I plan to return to Owosso in the future, and hope to contribute my time and resources in order for the public to continue to learn about steam era railroad technology. For more information about the North Pole Express, Pere Marquette 1225, and more, visit www.michigansteamtrain.com or call 989-725-9464. Who knows, maybe I’ll see one of you in a Michigan cornfield.