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    Or at least the huge steam locomotive depicted in the 2004 movie is, alive and well, and steaming away in Michigan! NPR had a story on the 66 year old steamer which recently returned to service after a boiler rebuild. Follow me below the Orange Omnilepticon for a look at this American giant of the rails, and a discussion of trains and the holiday season. Here's a video of #1225 on a sunny summer day - listen to that sound!

  When Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks went to turn the awarding winning book by Chris Van Allsburg into a movie, they were gambling on doing so with a new animation technology - motion capture. Tom Hanks played 6 roles in the movie this way. As he would move his body while acting the different roles, those motions were captured by special equipment, and used to animate 3D computer models of the characters. While it can be complicated at times, the advantages are that such animated characters move in a natural fashion - and within the limits of the laws of physics (unless special efforts are made.) The Polar Express is, by some accounts, the first all digital capture film.

   The most spectacular character to be modeled in 3D was #1225, a 2-8-4 Berkshire steam locomotive built by Lima Locomotive Works for the Pere Marquette Railroad. NPR has a bit of the history - and both video and sound at the link of the engine in action.

     At hundreds of tons and 16 feet tall towering over the rails, 1225 is an impressive piece of machinery. Even sitting still, it's like a living organism as steam fans often note. Steam hisses; smoke rises from the stack, throbbing pumps go on and off. And in motion, it's a visual symphony as wheels turn, rods rise and fall, pistons go back and forth. (For a fascinating account of what it was like to build locomotives like this, David Weitzman's Superpower, the Making of a Steam Locomotive is hard to beat, if you can find a copy.)

     Ironically, that very spectacle is why steam locomotives were so rapidly replaced by diesels in the 1950s. A steam engine in motion is doing its best to tear itself apart - all those heavy masses of metal moving back and forth at high speeds, steam under pressure - it requires an army of specialists to stay in good working order. In the days when railroads were all steam, a big percentage of the locomotives in a fleet were out of service at any given time for maintenance.

     1225 had several factors in its favor when being cast in the starring role. It was in operation in 2002 when the film crew needed to capture it in motion, measure it in detail, and record all of the sounds it produced in order to recreate it as a 3D model. The locomotive in the book by Chris Van Allsburg probably drew on it a lot (literally) as Van Allsburg grew up in Grand Rapids and had climbed on it numerous times while it was on static display before being restored!

     And the number 1225 turned out to be crucial too. The story goes that when it was one of a number of similar engines waiting to be scrapped, a Michigan State University trustee was offered one for preservation. He asked for one in good shape, and it was picked out for that reason - on the day before Christmas!

     The Polar Express as a movie added a lot of plot complications to pad out the story into a feature length film, but it's still very entertaining and not unfaithful to the original story. The book is more focused and deservedly a classic for its evocation of the holidays, the nature of gifting, and a belief in larger things despite evidence to the contrary.

    Railroads and the Christmas season have had a long tradition in both story and real life connections long before the Polar Express arrived. Canadian Pacific's holiday train echoes similar efforts by railroads over the decades, both as charity and pubic relations. There are any number of stories of train crews going out of their way to spread holiday cheer on their own, too.

    It's hard to appreciate in this day how integral railroads used to be to almost every part of American life. Before the coming of the automobile and the highway network, trains were how people and goods moved across the land. Engineers were comparable to astronauts or athletes for young people growing up. People trying to get home for the holidays counted on railroads to make it possible. And, the railroad industry used to be the single biggest source of employment in the United States.

   The Polar Express formalized holiday excursions by any number of tourist railroads, and they've now become a staple. It's also been a real shot in the arm to a traditional kind of toy - the model railroad. It's been one of the most successful train sets Lionel has ever offered, and has given rise to a whole assortment of associated products. The latest version of the train set includes a wireless remote control system.

   But, trains around the Christmas Tree go way back before the Polar Express. Lionel and others in the toy industry have always tried to connect the holidays with the kind of investment a train set represents - including classic advertisements. And, they haven't been unsuccessful. There are any number of families whose holiday celebrations include setting up a train layout. (Gallery of mostly holiday train layouts for your viewing pleasure.)

      Model railroading clubs and other groups often set up large train layouts for the holidays - it can be a real crowd draw. Museums, malls, any place looking to divert the public for the holiday often turn to big train  layouts.

      Part of the magic of the Polar Express, aside from the message within the story, is the way it connects so many threads in the American experience with trains and the holiday. I suspect a similar magic occurs in other countries with a history of railroading.

   All aboard!

Originally posted to xaxnar on Tue Dec 17, 2013 at 07:40 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.


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Comment Preferences

  •  My dad grew up in Lima. (6+ / 0-)

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Tue Dec 17, 2013 at 07:54:20 PM PST

  •  Went and road the Texas State RR last year (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    xaxnar, palantir, wader, wildcat6, dannyboy1

    don't know what kind of locomotive they had but it was a fine machine to see. If you get any where around Rusk it's a "mighty good road to ride".

    Rivers are horses and kayaks are their saddles

    by River Rover on Tue Dec 17, 2013 at 07:56:39 PM PST

  •  My 10-yr old son has (6+ / 0-)

    a model of Pere Marquette 1225 as part of his basement collection.  It's a Bachmann, I think.

    Thank you for this sons are big Polar Express fans too.

    "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." - John Kenneth Galbraith

    by wildcat6 on Tue Dec 17, 2013 at 07:57:29 PM PST

  •  Grew Up 10 Houses Back From One of the Last (8+ / 0-)

    steam lines, the one that runs Lakeside thru Cleveland and our adjacent inner suburb Lakewood Ohio, and ran down to trackside to watch the steam engines a number of times a day early 1950's. Took my first steam train trip in the late 50's; I was struck by how filthy the station, the train tracks and cars and everything were. In these days all buildings in major cities were coal-dust black as were all brick or stone structures, whether commercial or houses.

    Never took another till a few years ago, when a touring steamer from Indiana came thru the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway to give short rides. Part of my trip was on the platform outside in the first car behind the tender. I'd forgotten from my 1950's infancy just how dirty these machines were. I had crumbs of coal soot falling out of my hair, nose and ears for 3 days afterward.

    Here's a video someone took of run-by staged for photos and videoing during one of these visits.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Tue Dec 17, 2013 at 08:28:32 PM PST

  •  Right up the road from me. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    palantir, wader, xaxnar, wildcat6

    I've lived here almost 6 years and only found out recently that this was less than 20 miles away.

  •  Our local Polar Express runs from Noblesville, IN (7+ / 0-)

    to Fishers, IN. complete with stories, Santa and treats. My Dear Hubby runs a School Bus shuttle from the kindergarten classrooms to the train station for our local school. The kids LOVE this experience of riding a real train and hearing this delightful story.

    •  Yes! (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      xaxnar, Jakkalbessie, drmah, Rashaverak, JBL55

      I can just imagine kindergartners going crazy on this kind of field trip! Kids are totally nutz this last week before Christmas vacation, and a train! A train! A train! A train! Would you eat them on a train?

      Courtesy is owed. Respect is earned. Love is given. (Unknown author, found in Guide to Texas Etiquette by Kinky Friedman)

      by marykmusic on Wed Dec 18, 2013 at 08:21:05 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Funny Thing About Kids and Trains. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        xaxnar, RiveroftheWest

        My four-year-old loves The Polar Express, but in Portland, Maine, the local version is a small-gauge little steamer that's almost a bit frightening to ride.  There are many that are regular-gauge railroad engines, and those are much bigger and more impressive (not to mention comfortable).  The folks in Portland do a lot of work to get it going, but the little girl was a bit let down.

        The two year old, however, loves Thomas the tank engine...and we took him to a meet-Thomas-the-train day last year.  And this was a regular-sized engine, made up to look like Thomas.  And it was so big that the little boy was terrified and wanted to go nowhere near it.  If only the trains had been switched...

    •  My brother used to volunteer on a train up in that (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      xaxnar, Jakkalbessie, Rashaverak, JBL55

      area--I wonder if it is the same one? He also dressed up as Santa for the kids one year. He used to love working on the train, but he has had to have a few heart surgeries in the last year and hasn't been able to do it.

      •  Trip originates at the Indiana Train Museum in (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        xaxnar, Rashaverak, JBL55

        Noblesville.  Polar Express follows the same route the "Fair Train" takes to the Indiana State Fair in the summer, but just doesn't go as far into Indianapolis.

        There are many interesting old engines and train cars in various stages of restoration at the Museum, as well as several Interurban Cars back when Indy had a commuter rail service, in the dark ages.

        My son's boss was a big contributor and volunteer on the "Fair Train" and would even pay for some of his employees to "volunteer", so Son has been on a few journeys with old 587 Steam Engine.

  •  A childhood friend's father offered holiday tours (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    xaxnar, wildcat6, dannyboy1, Jakkalbessie

    of his train set each year - it was great for them, as they were in entertainment as side-jobs and drummed up more business.  But, for us kids, we got to play with the trains on their big board, learn about making mountains and landscapes, giggle at the small characters skinny-dipping in the convincing pond, etc.

    "So, please stay where you are. Don't move and don't panic. Don't take off your shoes! Jobs is on the way."

    by wader on Tue Dec 17, 2013 at 10:27:15 PM PST

  •  There used to be a grade crossing in town (6+ / 0-)

    Before the railroad closed it, the train whistles would blow for a good quarter mile ahead of it.

    There's still one driver on the line who remembers, and every Xmas Eve, he plays jingle bells on his whistle as his train passes through town.

    Merry Christmas y'all

    “The legitimate object of Government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves”- Lincoln

    by commonscribe on Wed Dec 18, 2013 at 07:26:45 AM PST

  •  As a one-time card-carrying member (8+ / 0-)

    of the Brotherhood of the Maintenance of Way laboring on the now-defunct Chicago and Northwestern RR, I enjoyed this piece immensely. When I worked on the RR, I was on work gangs replacing track and switches through Sterling, Illinois and points west into Iowa. In Sterling at the time was Northwestern Steel and Wire (closed since 2001), which maintained working steam locomotives to haul scrap metal and hot ingots into different parts of the plant for processing. On breaks, I could watch those engines endlessly. In the 60s, my grandmother worked at Marshall Field's in downtown Chicago, and each year she'd give each of my brothers/sisters and I a chance to ride the train downtown to see the famous Christmas tree and their Santa exhibit. We got to choose one (reasonably priced) gift for which she got a discount. The train ride was probably the biggest thrill to me, though for a wide-eyed kid, the whole day was magic.

    I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake. ― Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

    by dannyboy1 on Wed Dec 18, 2013 at 07:30:53 AM PST

  •  So sad that the railway has fallen into such (7+ / 0-)

    low ridership in this country compared to China and India.

    And for freight movement as well.  The environmental impact of thousands of 18 wheelers is so much greater than that of freight trains carrying the equivalent amount of cargo.

    Part of the renaissance of the US is going to have to include the refurbishment and modernization of the rail system.  We can put people back to work on these worthwhile products.

    In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. - George Orwell, 1984

    by Ammo Hauler on Wed Dec 18, 2013 at 08:53:14 AM PST

  •  It's REAL and WHITE SANTA runs it. And you can (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    WANT an electric-powered Polar Express, but just because you're oppressed by steam power doesn't mean that you GET an electric-powered Polar Express.

  •  The movie was just kind of creepy (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BRog, JBL55

    I think. The animation resides somewhere in the uncanny valley.

    1. Books are for use.

    by looty on Wed Dec 18, 2013 at 09:31:21 AM PST

    •  There is something to that (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      They were trying for photorealism of a sort, and also trying to realize the style of the art from the book. Given the state of the art way back then, it was a good try. The landscapes are impressive.

      "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

      by xaxnar on Wed Dec 18, 2013 at 09:52:46 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Agree. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      xaxnar, RiveroftheWest

      The book was much better.

    •  Well, You're On to Something... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest, xaxnar

      The book is kind of creepy too--in the sense that Santa, and the whole enterprise of the North Pole and Christmas, is made industrial, larger-than-life, bordering on frightening to small children.  I think that's really the point of the story, bringing the North Pole into the industrial age, but in a way that's still accessible to children.  I think that the creepiness is deliberate.  The whole movie is like the first Batman--there's no blue sky.  It's dark.  (The ghost and the car full of puppets just makes it even more so--when I first saw that I was thinking of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the skeletons and snakes.)

  •  loved the story (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    xaxnar, Rashaverak, JBL55, Bluefin

    and it just so happens took the train from Santa Fe, NM to Albuquerque this morning to participate in an anti-Keystone XL rally.  Really do enjoy the ride.  

    We were in Switzerland in November and took the train from Zurich to Zermatt and that was a very fascinating ride.  At the town of Visp we changed to a narrow gauge train that had a "zahnrad", a racheting device to help pull the train up the steep grades and around the sharp and winding curves.  It was a beautiful ride!

    'If you are curious, you are not bored. If you are bored, you grow old.' Lillian Gish

    by Jakkalbessie on Wed Dec 18, 2013 at 02:31:55 PM PST

  •  There's also a bit of an in-joke. (5+ / 0-)

    The Berkshire Class of locomotives (2-8-4) are actually intended for freight, and spent most of their lifetimes hauling fast, moderate-tonnage freight trains.

    Always struck me as funny that that particular engine type would end up the head end of the Polar Express, but the number 1225 was just too good for the filmmakers to pass up; it was also in fine running condition and available!

  •  Just rode this train! (7+ / 0-)

    Thanks for this diary!  The Michigan Steam Institute has done a great job taking care of this train.  We just rode it last Friday for the "Polar Express" experience.  The hisses, whistles, and just sheer immensity of the engine were a thrill for my 10 year old, our friend, and my wife and I.  Our journey was at night so we enjoyed the sight of the train's headlamp and other lights through the steam and snow.  It was truly a magical time and I encourage anyone with young children to attend.  Hearing the sound, feeling the immense strength of the engine getting up to speed, seeing the engineer with an old fashioned oil can checking it over during the stop at the North Pole, and seeing my fellow Michiganders genuinely happy to wait for this train to cross made for a great event.

  •  Excellent Post! (5+ / 0-)

    I love both the book and the movie--each adds a bit of--and don't get me wrong--terror to Christmas, in the sense of making Santa and everything associated with him monumental, awesome to behold by children (or even adults).  It's that dark sense of hugeness which adds so much to both book and movie.

    It's one of my favorites, and without much question my four-year-old daughter's favorite (she watches it roughly twenty times a year).  One of my favorite elements in the movie--also in the book, but much more heavily developed in the film--is the evocation of late 1800's to mid-1900's American industrial society--brick and mortar, trains, brass.  Not yet the steel, glass and modular concrete age.  And that brick-and-mortar industrial era, also exemplified by the swingtime-era music in the background at the North Pole (not to mention the storefront at the beginning of the movie) seems to me to represent (certainly in the minds of the film's creators) the apex of American society, at its most powerful and still most innocent, before the stresses within (and outside of) our society became unavoidable by everyone.

  •  Great Diary! (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JBL55, xaxnar, Hoghead99, RiveroftheWest

    Several years ago, I picked up a quartet of DVDs at the fabulous B&O RailRoad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.  One was called Steam in Winter, another was called Steam in Spring, etc.

    On one of those discs, they had an extended segment about the Pere Marquette 1225.  Superb locomotive!

    I would encourage anyone to foster an interest in model railroading among the little ones.  It can draw them into technical areas like woodworking and electronics, and also graphic arts.  It might spark a life-long interest and an educational path and career.

    Wishing everyone a train-filled Holiday Season,

    Toot!  Toot!

  •  Great diary! I was watching the movie last night (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rashaverak, xaxnar, RiveroftheWest

    and thinking about how it was made.  It never occurred to me that they captured the train the same way they captured hanks.

    I love that movie.  That poor little girl is like the empath for the world.  I just want her to smile and enjoy herself.

    For a great glorification of the steam locomotive check out the famous train scene in Lubitsch's Monte Carlo!!  (Especially regarding sound).

    Please know I am not rude. I cannot rec anything from this browser. When I rec or post diaries I am a guest at some exotic locale's computer. Ayn is the bane!

    by Floyd Blue on Thu Dec 19, 2013 at 05:03:03 AM PST

  •  Can any of the train buffs here help me ... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    xaxnar, Hoghead99, Bluefin, RiveroftheWest

    ... with some research?  

    My great-great-grandfather worked for the Rogers Locomotive Company, and in the late 1860s he traveled to South America to participate in the building of the highest railroad in the world through the Andes Mountains.

    He took my great-great-grandmother with him (along with his favorite rocking chair), and two of their children (including my great-grandmother) were born in Chile.

    As the current steward of the rocking chair, I wish I knew more of the human story that made it such a well-traveled piece of furniture, such as exactly what my great-great-grandfather's job with the Rogers Locomotive Company entailed that made him a candiate for this particular project and what he did down there.

    Any pointing in the general direction of where such information might be found would be greatly appreciated.

    •  Hmmmm....... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      xaxnar, JBL55, RiveroftheWest

        I'm guessing you should Google Rogers Locomotive Company. They might have a historical society, many outfits do!

      Compost for a greener piles?

      by Hoghead99 on Thu Dec 19, 2013 at 06:53:33 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Hey JBL55, (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Bluefin, xaxnar, JBL55

      A quick search on teh Google for "Rogers Locomotive Company" yielded some good histories of the company.

      If archives are available for the company, you might start with the Paterson Museum which is located in the main erecting shop of the old Rogers Works. Another source could be the main library in Paterson, NJ. Also check to see if Patterson has a historical society. Many times, corporate archives of defunct companies end up with universities or museums. You might check Rutgers university.

      Hope this helps.

      While not all republicans are bigots, all bigots are republicans.

      by Maximilien Robespierre on Thu Dec 19, 2013 at 06:57:52 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I grew up not far from Paterson. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        xaxnar, RiveroftheWest

        I haven't lived in that area for 15 years, but I do go back from time to time and should plan to do some research on my next visit.  I'll have to reach out to the library and historical society in the meantime.

        There is no mention of the building of the Andean railway in the Wikipedia article, but it lists a locomotive (4865) which was sold in 1893 to the Chilean State Railways.  I wonder if his assignment was to evaluate and report on what kind of locomotives would be needed on that line.

        (There was a typo in my post -- I meant to write that my great-great-grandparents -- and the chair -- travelled south in the 1870s, not 1860s.)

        Thanks to both you and Hoghead99 for pointing me towards teh Google -- should have tried that before.  D'oh!

  •  In New Hampshire there is a dinner train ... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    xaxnar, RiveroftheWest

    ... called the Cafe Lafayette Dinner Train which used to offer an especially lovely meal on Christmas.  Mr. L & I took that ride on Christmas 1998, and it shines out in our memories of all the best Christmases we've shared.  

    They don't appear to offer it any more, which is a shame.  

  •  We always have a train or two around the tree... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    xaxnar, RiveroftheWest

    plus we watch the Polar Express.

    We've been up to Owosso, MI to see the 1225 a number of times. The last time was during Train Festival last decade when a number of other steam locomotives including the 4449 came in from all over. 1225's sister the Nickel Plate Road 765 came up from Fort Wayne, IN. What a great time.

    Steam engines are wonderful beasts to experience. Under trained hands, they can provide an awful lot of power. These locomotives were very capable of speeds exceeding 100 MPH.

    For those who want one, Lionel produced a Polar Express set a number of years ago. Some may still be available.

    While not all republicans are bigots, all bigots are republicans.

    by Maximilien Robespierre on Thu Dec 19, 2013 at 06:31:41 AM PST

    •  Lionel is still making them (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I have a link to their catalog listing towards the bottom of the diary. I think I saw something this year about being able to get the set complete with an autographed copy of the Polar Express book.

      "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

      by xaxnar on Thu Dec 19, 2013 at 08:14:59 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Lionel was the starting point...... (4+ / 0-)

       ...for me! Early ads showed a father sipping coffee while his son ran the train. I know that Pop and I spent countless hours under the train table, wiring, changing stuff, etc.  Still have those trains today...

       When I found myself out of work @ 47 years old, it was the Union Pacific that gave me a job as thru-freight Conductor. Two years later was training for engine service, promoted to Engineer in 1999, right before Pop passed. Boy, was he proud!

       2011 saw me retire, but not before being the pilot engineer on a Challenger run, St. Louis to Jefferson City, MO October 9, 2010... The regular enginner offered me the chance to run her, and boy did I. I'd told him I just wanted to run one mile, but it turned into a lot more, mebbe 15 or so. Was the best day I ever had on the railroad...

       Nice diary here. Thanks!

    Best, Hoghead99

    Compost for a greener piles?

    by Hoghead99 on Thu Dec 19, 2013 at 06:50:47 AM PST

  •  Couldn't pick just one (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    xaxnar, RiveroftheWest

    Will be playing with Thomas the Train track with my son.  (This only happens on days that end in "Y".)

    Will read Polar Express at least once a day from now until Christmas.  (Or at least we have since the Saturday after Thanksgiving when we unpacked the Christmas books along with the lights.

    And this isn't even counting the Christmas train that runs around the base of our tree.

    I am a statistician, not a magician although we are easily confused. I guess that explains why people keep trying to tie me in chains and place me under water.

    by Edge PA on Thu Dec 19, 2013 at 11:03:08 AM PST

  •  I just watched that movie again, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    a couple of weeks ago.  I LOVE that movie!  I have the book, too.  :)

    Some things never grow old, and trains at Christmas time is one of them.  There used to be a family who every year had an extensive and very serious train-set, set up in a kind of cul de sac around Garcia Street for all the walkers to enjoy as they did the Canyon Road walk in Santa Fe, to see the farolitos (bags with candles) and luminarios (stacked wood fires).  Last year it wasn't there and everyone on the walk around me was sad that it was missing.  

    Thanks for this information.  How about that Polar Express!  Too fun!

    I would rather spend my life searching for truth than live a single day within the comfort of a lie. ~ John Victor Ramses

    by KayCeSF on Thu Dec 19, 2013 at 02:21:44 PM PST

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