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The Polar Express Comes to Michigan


While growing up in Grand Rapids, Chris Van Allsburg remembers hearing train whistles and taking train rides with his father. These childhood sights and sounds became part of the inspiration for Van Allsburg’s well-known children’s book, The Polar Express. The story is about a young boy who takes a magical journey aboard a train to the North Pole and receives a special gift-a bell-from Santa. Only those who truly believe in Santa can hear the bell.

The book’s popularity led to a movie released in November 2004. Michigan railroad buffs recognize the sound of the movie’s train whistle, which comes from one of the nation’s few working steam locomotives.

Built in 1941, the Pere Marquette 1225 is an enormous steam locomotive, measuring one hundred feet long and sixteen feet high. Replaced in 1951 by a more efficient diesel engine, the 1225 was saved from the scrap heap and decades later, ended up in Owosso as the star of the Steam Railroading Institute (SRI). Shortly thereafter, the 1225 was restored to its former glory.

As researchers prepared the movie version of Van Allsburg popular book, they were drawn to Owosso and the 1225. Technicians recorded the sound of the whistle, the clatter of the wheels and the rumble of the four-hundred-ton locomotive rolling down the tracks. The sounds were merged with the animated Polar Express.

Photos of the Pere Marquette 1225 from Glancy Train’s Photo Gallery

Visit Owosso’s Steam Railroading Institute for rides on their North Pole Express.

PHOTO CREDIT: Pere Marquette 1225, Bannister, Michigan, May 31, 2003
Photo © Adrienne Scholl, Michigan State Trust for Railway Preservation, Inc.

For more great stories on Michigan’s past, look to Michigan History magazine. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit http://www.michiganhistorymagazine.com/.