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.
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
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.
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.