The Pere Marquette 1225

17 12 2012

The Pere Marquette 1225 might be one of the most famous trains in North America, but most know it as the Polar Express, and it’s sitting right down the road.

The 1225 was one of the steam engines built in 1941 for the purpose of transporting supplies to World War II factories.   Coming in at over 100 feet long and 400 tons in weight, the 1225’s engine runs at 3,000 horsepower, requires  a ton of coal for every 12 miles, takes eight hours to fire up, and requires 10 – 15 people to run.  The locomotive, built at a cost of $200,000 ($2.5 million today), is the largest to ever run in Michigan and was only used for a decade.  Diesel and other less expensive forms of power were taking over the market, and the era of the steam engine was at an end.  After the war ended, the 1225 was transferred to a scrap yard in New Buffalo where it remained until 1957.

The 1225 was officially commemorated on June 12, 1957.  Forest Akers and other MSU dignitaries were present for the occasion.

The 1225 was officially commemorated on June 12, 1957. Forest Akers and other MSU dignitaries were present for the occasion.

It was at this time that the Pere Marquette 1225 was donated to MSU, and it was the beginning of 30 years of debate.  Forest Akers, along with a group of Railroad enthusiasts, desired to acquire the locomotive as a monument to the Age of Steam, and John Hannah didn’t.  One newspaper is quoted as saying, “The University was not in the railroad history business, nor did it intend to enter such.”  Due to Akers’ generous donations to the school, however, there was not much of

The crew of Project 1225 distributed brochures explaining their mission and selling detailed drawings of the locomotive for restoration funds.

The crew of Project 1225 distributed brochures explaining their mission and selling detailed drawings of the locomotive for restoration funds.

an argument, and the 1225 was officially welcomed to campus in June of 1957.

“Welcome” could be a generous word.  MSU publicly considered the engine to be an eyesore, and the 1225 sat unused just south of Spartan Stadium until Randy Paquette assembled an organization of fellow students to restore the machine in 1969, under the name of Project 1225.  Worried by the timeliness, cost, and danger of the steam engine, MSU proclaimed that should the students cease work on it at any time, the machine would be scrapped immediately.

Many of these students say that had they known what was in store during the restoration of 1225, they never would have started the project.  Few of the original student crew were in the Engineering department, and zero of them had experience in locomotive construction.  One quote summarized this succinctly, “…no shop building, no crane, no drop pit, no tools, no supplies, no experience, and no money.”  Just to get power at the work site, a 400 foot extension cord was snaked across streets and through an open window.

This photograph came from Vol. III, No. 6 of the Project 1225 Bulletin, and it shows some of the original boiler crew.

This photograph came from Vol. III, No. 6 of the Project 1225 Bulletin, and it shows some of the original boiler crew.

The crew eventually was put in contact with one Kenneth Pelton, who had worked on the original models of the 1200 Berkshire series in the 1930s.  For over three years, Mr. Pelton donated his time, dedicated to making the 1225’s boiler operational.  By 1975 the crew were able to run the boiler long enough to blow the whistle, which could be heard over five miles away and rang, “…crying out like a newborn dinosaur.”

After 20 years of financial woes, the Michigan State Trust for Railway Preservation was formed in 1979 to raise money for restoration in order to make a “working relic” out of the 1225.  The locomotive found a new home in 1983 off of an old rail line in Owosso, Michigan, where it still resides under the jurisdiction of the Steam Railroading Institute.  The building was refurbished to provide a workshop for easier repairs and more suitable conditions for the workers themselves.  Their work paid off.  The restoration was completed in 1988 when the train took its first trip to Chesaning (which it does every holiday season now), at a total final cost of $1 million.  The students of 1971 estimated it would cost at most $30,000 and only take a year.

The Pere Marquette 1225’s most recent claim to fame came in 2004, with the premier of the cartoon The Polar Express.  The author of the original famous children’s story, Chris van Allsburg, grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which was a regular part of the Marquette’s route.   During filming of the movie, sound and design technicians from Warner Brothers regularly worked with the employees of the Steam Railroading Institute, receiving schematics of the train’s design, as well as traveling to Owosso to record the locomotive itself.

The Pere Marquette is only one of 6 or 7 engines of its kind to be operational in the US today.  More information about rides and tours can be found at the Steam Railroading Institute’s website here.

This image of the 1225 in action was taken by Robert Emmett for the 1992 Newsletter of the Michigan Trust for Railway Preservation.

This image of the 1225 in action was taken by Robert Emmett for the 1992 Newsletter of the Michigan Trust for Railway Preservation.



9 responses

4 09 2013
Chuck Julian

The story about 1225 being chosen because 12/25 is Christmas day is wrong. In speaking to several of the people who were involved in selecting the engine, they all said that it was chosen because it was the last engine in the line of retired engines. It was easiest to get out. Chris Van Allsburg may have been inspired by the number, but it was just a random event that brought 1225 to MSU, as opposed to some other engine.

According to Rollie Baker, Director of the MSU Museum, Forest Akers was a friend of Cyrus Eaton, the Chairman of the C&O, which had purchased the PMRY. Eaton did not like seeing all the steam engines scrapped and thought that they should be monuments to the age of steam. He tried hard to find places to accept his engines. As a friend and member of the same club, Eaton talked Akers into putting an engine on campus. He envisioned it as something hands on for the Engineering School. Keeping in mind that Akers was an MSU Trustee and the University’s largest contributor, John Hannah thought it a wise move to accept the engine. On top of that, Hannah was on the board of the Forest Akers Trust. Had he refused the engine, Forest Akers could have kicked him and VP Jack Breslin off the board of the trust, which paid for Akers Hall and the Forest Akers golf course. Once Hannah accepted the engine, the Dean of the College of Engineering said that he was not interested in having an antique piece of machinery, so Hannah called Rollie Baker and told him that he was getting a steam engine.

The MSURRC worked on the 1225 with the blessing of Rollie Baker, who was risking his job by allowing us to work on it. He said that he thought it was better that we were doing something constructive on campus rather than rioting and having protest marches. Dr. Baker was at risk because not only did Breslin threaten the engine if we stopped, he also made it clear to Dr. Baker that if it failed, he could end up paying a price. This was all because the Forestry Club had convinced someone in the university that they should be allowed to build a log cabin on campus. They cut trees from the Baker Wood lot, brought them to the site that was for the log cabin, then the students in charge of the club graduated, leaving the University with a pile of logs to dispose of and a site that had been cleared, plus having to explain why these were cut out of the Baker Wood Lot. Breslin was quite upset about it and warned many people on campus that they would be in trouble if something like this happened again. He saw Project 1225 as a potential for a locomotive that had been a nice display, turned into a heap of scrap.

Ken didn’t spend three years of his life restoring the boiler. He came for several weekends per year over three years. He worked on locomotive boilers when he started with the PMRY and was an active C&O boilermaker at the time he helped us.

The story about Jack Breslin threatening to cut up the engine if the work stopped is true. To make his point, he had the hopper car that was next to the engine, cut up. It inspired me to go to graduate school at MSU, to protect the engine. I assumed the presidency of the club and was the first president of the Michigan State Trust for Railway Preservation. I never thought for a minute that this was an idle threat and could not have lived with myself if I was part of the reason that it was cut up. This may have actually been the thing that saw the engine through. Had it not been for that threat, it would have been easy to go elsewhere for grad school and abandon the project. It probably would not have been finished. I don’t have hard feelings toward Jack Breslin. In the long run, he did us a favor.

Although we had very few engineering students, we had students and other volunteers that could think and were willing to learn. As such, we took the advice of people like Don Childs of the MSU Engineering Machine Shop, Ken Pelton, boilermaker, Hank Truer of the C&O engine shop, Herschal Christiansen, retired engine master for the PM, Sam Chidester, retired engineer for the PM and others who knew more than we did. Don Childs got permission for us to use the machinery in the Engineering Machine Shop as long as we didn’t spend Don’s time or time of others in the shop and we paid for any materials we used. We also had my father’s foundry to cast parts we needed but didn’t have.

The Trust formed and the locomotive was given to the Trust because as President of the MSURRC, I went to Edgar Hardin’s reception when he became the MSU President after Cliff Wharton. I made an appointment to see him afterwards and we discussed the engine. I told him that we were getting near having the engine ready to run and that we wanted to know our status with the University. He told me that the University had no interest in running a locomotive and if it did, it would be with University employees and not MSURRC members. He then said that if we formed a 501c3 not for profit corporation, he would give us the locomotive. We did that, so the University gave us the locomotive.

I’m the guy at the far left of the photo from the hydrostatic test of the engine.

4 09 2013
Robert Teed

I have leased the Pere Marquette 1225 for a Steam Locomotive Excursion on March 15th 2014. More information can be found at

5 09 2013

Thank you for the information, Chuck. It’s nice to hear from someone who worked on the project. The blog post has been updated.

28 09 2013
Chuck Julian

According to Herschal Christiansen, when the C&O was getting ready to close the Steam Shop in Wyoming, Michigan, they had stopped running steam and yet had a week to run on the union contract before they could close the shop. They pulled the 1229 off the scrap line and had the shop do a class 3 overhaul on the engine. A Class 3 overhaul means that all items on the engine must be brought up to new specifications. That means cylinders bored out, pistons built up or replaced with rings, all appliances rebuilt to new, new boiler tubes and superheaters, etc. When they finished with the engine, the contract ran out. The 1229 was pushed back out onto the scrap line and was later scrapped. Herschal said that it was too bad that we got the 1225 instead of the 1229. There would have been a lot less work.

Herschal and Sam Chidester often came together to visit the engine. Sam remarked that he never liked the 1225 very much. He said that the springs were a little too hard and consequently it rode a bit rough.

Henry (Hank) Truer came out to visit the engine a few times. He said that after the steam shop closed, the railroad threw away the blue prints on all of the engines that were worked on at Wyoming, except for one set. When he came out to see us, he said that they had decided to throw away that last set of 1200 Berkshire prints, so he took that set home. He gave that set to the MSU Railroad Club. It has been used extensively over the years.

We were told by Sam Chidester that we should never take the engine over 60 mph because in order to get more tractive effort, they cut the lead out of the valves. This meant that we could damage the engine if we went faster than 60. When Hank Truer came out, I asked him about this. He said that Gordon Lucher (sp?), the steam shop superintendent, concocted that story to get the engineers to slow down. They were beating the engines to death and he needed to slow them down to make them last. They never made any change to the lead on the reversing valve.

Ken Pelton, who did our boiler work and who was a boiler maker his whole life, said that we should never do what was commonly known as relieving the siphons. This is where the thermic siphons in the fire box are cut loose from the fire box then rewelded to the fire box. The theory was that this released stress and would prevent the siphons from buckling with time. Ken said that the Pere Marquette Railroad did an extensive study on this where they took the entire fleet of engines, including main line engines, switchers, etc., and divided them in half. One half would have the siphons relieved once per year, the other half would not ever have the siphons relieved. The 1225 was in the group that had never had the siphons relieved. They found that they had fewer problems with the siphons buckling in the engines that were not relieved vs. those that were relieved. Ken said that every time you fire an engine, the firebox moves. Relieving the siphons gives you a greater chance of having the siphons welded in where the firebox is stressed than if you left them alone. If they were put in and did not buckle immediately, there was a good chance that they never would. Unfortunately, after I was not regularly involved anymore, someone decided to cut the siphons in the firebox. It is hard to get that kind of information passed from one generation of people working on the engine to the next.

2 10 2013
Chuck Julian

When the 1225 was moved to MSU by the C&O Railroad, the brakeman accompanying the engine was named Phil Gary. He visited the engine and told us that the engine lead axle on the engineer’s side had run hot in the move and that they had used a product called Koolax to get to East Lansing. The axle would need to be burnished. I made the mistake of asking Herschel and Sam about what it would take to pull the pony truck axle and turn it. They both nearly broke out laughing and said that this engine does not have a pony truck. This is a modern engine with a lead truck. A pony truck is a truck specifically designed to be able to be pulled by a team of horses and no engines were built that way for a long time. A few old timers used to refer to the lead truck as a pony truck but that term was obsolete long ago on steam engines. They told me that anyone who had used that term when they worked on the railroad would have been laughed at. They did say that the term was still correctly used up till around 1920 on street cars. Many of those were designed to be able to be pulled by horses and they remembered riding on horse drawn street cars. We eventually did pull the lead truck axle and turn it.

Every time Sam and Herschel visited, they would regale us with stories of running engines. Sam told a story of waiting for the diamond to clear next to campus in the cab of a 1200 Berkshire. There was a dirt road along side the tracks with a tow truck stuck in the mud. Sam got out and talked to the tow truck driver saying that if he had a chain, he could pull him out of the mud with the engine. The tow truck driver then asked Sam, do you think it can pull me out? Sam replied, you just make sure that you attach that chain to something solid because when I back up, whatever it is attached to is coming with me. With 69,000 pounds of tractive effort, Sam had no trouble pulling him out of the mud.

16 01 2014
Chuck Julian

The day that the engine was first fired in 1975 and the period leading up to it was interesting to say the least. Once the boiler work was complete, we purchased coal from the university and used it to fill the tender. That was done with a farm conveyor belonging to Roger Scovill. The firebox was then shoveled full of coal to a depth of about one foot. On top of that, were slab wood scraps from a sawmill nearby and the tree branches we surreptitiously removed from the pine tree overhanging the engine’s display fence and which blocked the removal of the flues during the boiler work. We never sought permission to remove the branches because we were pretty sure that the university would refuse permission. It was thought that it would be better if they just disappeared. The firebox was filled up to the fire brick arch between the siphons. That was way more than any railroad would ever consider putting in a locomotive firebox. Part of our concern was that coal was expensive and we didn’t want to waste any of it. The slab wood was free.

On top of the coal, branches and slab wood was poured about 1/2 drum of waste oil that we got from the engineering machine shop. It was thought that we would need a lot of heat to bring the water in the boiler to a boil.

In anticipation of there being a lot of cinders coming out the stack due to the wood, a metal screen was placed over the smoke stack. We didn’t want to be fighting grass fires or have burning cinders floating down anywhere on campus. An air compressor was hooked to the pipe that ran the blower inside the smoke box, which was used to facilitate draft when the engine was not running down the tracks.

I was assigned to arrive at the engine at midnight. My job was to make sure that the engine passed its final hydro and do whatever it took to get there. I was also there to make sure that we didn’t have someone not associated with the project do something like start the fire too soon. We had trouble with the steam dome gasket, so we removed the dome cap and the gasket. I annealed the gasket with a torch. We reinstalled it and then pressure tested. This time the seal held but the whistle valve leaked. We lapped the valve seat and then we passed the hydrostatic test. Water was then drained from the boiler to the point that it was showing full on the water glass.

At 4:00, quite a few others had arrived to see the fusee thrown into the firebox to start the fire going. That honor was given to Sam Williams, a former conductor of the Florida East Coast Railroad, who was a black man, who didn’t actually work on the engine, but helped us with fundraising. He was a well loved figure in the organization, which is why he got that honor.

Within a few minutes of the fusee being throw into the firebox, smoke started pouring out of the firebox doors, even though they were closed. The black smoke was so thick that everyone immediately got out of the cab. The 150 watt light bulb in the cab, faded completely into the darkness. The compressor was running, but the smoke wasn’t coming out of the stack.

My thought was that we needed to get a fan so that we could blow some of the smoke out of the cab. I drove to my apartment, a distance of over a mile from the locomotive, to get the fan. There, I could smell the smoke from the locomotive. When I got back, Roger had kicked the screen off the stack and the smoke was now clear of the cab and billowing out of the stack. The smoke crossing the road was so thick that car headlights disappeared as they drove through. Luckily, the University was fully aware that we would be doing this and the fire department did not come out. We received no complaints about the smoke. It took close to an hour for all the oil to burn out and leave a fire without a lot of smoke.

Around 8:00, the engine was already up to 150 psi. We had not added any coal and the fire was still going strong. Roger was of the opinion, he was the President of the Club at that time, that we should not blow the whistle before 8:00. I was sitting in the fireman’s seat when Roger blew the whistle. To say that it was loud would be an understatement. I was looking across the practice field at Wilson Hall. I could see windows open and the reflected flashes of sunlight on the eyeglasses of students trying to figure out what was going on. A few minutes later, students started running up to the engine to see the spectacle. There had been no publicity before this event. We did not want a lot of people there should we have something go wrong that caused us to abort the fire up, so people on campus were generally not prepared to wake up the the sound of a steam whistle that was so loud that it made your ears hurt.

For the next several hours, we blew the whistle, tested the stoker engine and screw, practiced using the inspirator to fill the boiler, made a film about the fireup and generally enjoyed the afternoon. A lot of reporters and spectators came by and a lot of interviews were given. By 4:00, I was exhausted, having not been able to get to sleep the previous night. I was not on the shutdown crew, so I left the shutdown to others.

When we started this project, we thought we might use up a good portion of the coal in the tender. As it was, we only used a little in testing the stoker and hand shoveling a small amount. We took the coal back out of the tender and placed it in a separate pile next to the Shaw Lane power plant. We drew on that pile to run our coal stove in the Railway Post Office Car that we used as a shop.

That car still exists and is now on display in the U.S. Postal Service museum located in the Grand Central Station in Washington DC. Unfortunately, the Southern Railroad had modified the car to look like one of theirs as opposed to the GTW car that it really was. That included rounding off one end of the car and replacing all the city name tags which were from Michigan and other midwest towns, with names of southern towns, on the mail sorting slots. The car was lettered with the name of the Southern.

While I was involved in the project, I believed that the car was rarer than the engine, so I made sure we kept all the pieces, including the mail bag arm, used for catching mail bags on the fly, and prevented others in the organization from gutting a lot of the sorting bins and racks to make room to work or otherwise modifying the car. John Martin did not agree when he became the President of the Trust. He sold the car to someone who merely wanted the trucks out from under it. He considered it to be surplus scrap. The Southern bought the car after that. Even though the car is heavily modified, the instruction sheet prepared by Bob Wasko, for how to mount the gas engine under the car to run the generator, is still posted within the car, giving away its previous life with us. I have mixed emotions about the car. I thought it was a huge mistake to get rid of the car, but I am pleased to see that the Southern saw its value, even though they modified it heavily.

2 02 2014
Robert Teed

You can ride the Pere Marquette 1225 on March 15th 2014. More info at

3 02 2014
Chuck Julian

When the Railroad Club bought the RPO from the GTW, a group of our members went to Detroit to look over the cars. They chose the nicest of the cars and paid for it there. We were looking for a car to use as a work shop on site. A few days later, we were informed by the GTW that they would not sell us the car. After a meeting, we decided to send them a letter saying, “We have a receipt, send us our car.” They sent the car, which was spotted on the Shaw Lane siding.

Jack Breslin was furious. He wanted to know why this had been brought on to campus when it didn’t belong to the University. He called Randy Paquette to his office and chewed him out. Dr. Baker came to our rescue and accepted the car as a gift to the Museum. This appeased Jack Breslin.

26 03 2014
Chuck Julian

A number of people seem to think that we stole power from the University. That is far from the truth. As a registered student group, we asked the University for power. We originally were given permission from the Physical Plant to get power from the practice field across the street from the engine. Randy Paquette was working as a Phys Plant employee at the time and not only secured the permission, but then made two long extension cords out of ROMEX wire, each around 500′ long, which we used to bring power to the engine. That wasn’t a very good solution since we had to string the cord over the road and the voltage drop was such that we only had around 100 volts at our end of the line. Later, Randy was able to get permission for us to get power from the Landscape Arts Building. We only needed one extension cord for that. We would drop the cord through a window to a wall socket. The voltage was a little higher. This was never enough power to do more than light a few lights or run a hand drill. It ran the fan in the RPO which was used to blow on our coal stove to transfer the heat into the car. Before we had the fan, most of the heat went out the stack. When we wanted to do anything else, we had to generate power. Since we had a small compressor, air tools were the tools of choice. Many of the air tools were either borrowed from the Engineering Machine Shop or borrowed from my father’s foundry. We borrowed larger air compressors at times. At different times, we were able to borrow generators. Dave Templeton started bringing his portable welder generator in around 1976. That was used for welding but also used with an air arc torch to burn the draw pin out of the locomotive. Needless to say, gasoline was one of our continuing expenses.

Early meetings of the club when I joined in 1970, typically had a bit of business discussed then members would show slides of locomotives that they had seen. Steve Reeves rarely talked about the restoration. He was more interested in photographs than anything else. He would have slide shows of things like locomotives switching cars at the Cadillac Plant in Detroit. Once Steve graduated, those slide shows stopped.

In those days, arguments over how to spend the little money we had could go on for an hour. I remember one argument over whether we should spend money for a broom lasting 15 minutes. Much of that ended when an anonymous donor gave the Club a thousand dollars. He didn’t want his name published but gave the money in exchange for a commitment that once the engine was running, he would get a four hour cab ride. When the engine did finally get running 10 years later, Aarne Frobom said that they couldn’t find the guy.

Work outdoors on the engine was only in the time that there was no snow on the ground. That finally changed when I became President in 1975. Otherwise, the only work going on was in the Engineering Machine Shop. That had to be during the hours that the machine shop was open during the week. I typically would try to get a couple of hours in each week. In an effort to get the project moving, I took one summer off and spent it working every day in the machine shop. On the weekends I was at the engine. That effort got the two air compressors, the hot water pump and the blow downs rebuilt. Steve Derocha spent a lot of time in the shop as well. He rebuilt the dynamo and the cold water pump with help from Randy Paquette. I had taken the spring off as well, having run out of money for school. In that time, I earned enough to go the next year on my savings and loaned $1100.00 to the cause. That later became a donation.

The project probably would have failed without the help of Don Childs, who ran the Engineering Machine Shop. We not only used their equipment, but Don taught guys like me to be machinists. I learned to turn shafts and chase threads with a lathe as well as do a number of other things. After teaching me to make bushings to repair the packing nuts on the air compressors, Don heated the old bushings and cooled the new inserts with Dry Ice. He then pressed the two together, having a 0.002 interference fit, with a 50 ton press in the machine shop. Don worked with Steve Derocha to build a die to swedge pieces of boiler tube that were then welded back on the old flues, so that they could be reused. He then helped us use that die and swedge the tubes. When we wanted a wrench to remove the side rods, Don showed Norm Burgess how to cut it out of a piece of steel with a metal cutting band saw. Don helped Dean Eicher build a throttle grinder using the prints out of one of the hand books we had on engine repair. The throttle had a series of opening valves on a cam shaft. These were badly rusted and would not seal till they were machined back into shape. Don got someone from Eutectic Engineering to come in to teach me how to weld repair one of the cast iron air compressor housings, which had a leg broken off accidentally. Welding cast iron is much more difficult than welding steel. I don’t remember how it got broken, just that I needed to fix it. Don not only had a lot of machining skill, but also had the patience to teach us how to do the repairs as opposed to him doing all of it himself.

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