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Polar Express Magic | Winter 2005 Out Here Magazine

The Polar Express locomotive was modeled after the Pere Marquette No. 1225.

Locomotive rolls from the scrap heap to the big screen

By Megan Swoyer

Photography courtesy of
The Steam Railroading Institute

If you saw last year's immensely popular animated movie, Polar Express, the word "magic" probably comes to mind. Magic of Christmas. Magical animation. Magical story.

But there's more enchantment to that movie than you probably know. That majestic Polar Express locomotive was modeled after an actual steam-powered iron horse, the Pere Marquette No. 1225, that came dangerously close to the scrap heap.

What saved it? The magic of Christmas.

Built in 1941, the PM 1225 traveled the tracks for nearly a decade. But as quickly as new rock 'n roll music styles were heating up American airwaves in the early 1950s, a chill was descending upon the lives of steam-powered vehicles.

For the 1225, the writing was on the roundhouse wall as these iron horses were pronounced nearly dead while other types of fueled engines began to replace them.

Michigan State University officials wanted to preserve a part of railroading history, and, in 1957, requested a locomotive to exhibit.

"The order went down to the yard man to pick one out of the long line of steam engines that were to be scrapped," recalls Dennis Braid, executive director of the Steam Railroading Institute, an Owosso, MI, museum that pays homage to the trains of yesteryear.

"As he walked by one, the numbers on the side — 1225 — caught his eye. It reminded him of Christmas day. So that one was saved, not scrapped."

Fast-forward almost 50 years to the day when filmmakers contacted Braid requesting a model for a movie they were doing about a magical train, based on the acclaimed book, The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg.

"They were looking for a locomotive that was like the one in the book," Braid says, and the 1225, which had found a permanent home at the museum, was perfect.

"We did all the sound work, and provided sounds from our handcart and other things," he says.

The magic continues in this 400-ton beauty's life. The movie inspired museum staff to create their own version of The Polar Express, staff curator Matt Folland says.

Those who want to experience the movie's magic for themselves can board the "North Pole Express," each November and December.

"We keep the 1225 hidden and off site until the passengers are gathered at the platform," Folland says. "So it's very similar to the movie when it comes charging down the tracks to pick up the little boy."

Megan Swoyer, a Troy, MI, freelance journalist, is the granddaughter of a former general manager of the American Locomotive Co.