Pere Marquette 1225 makes it way on the Great Lakes Central mainline in Owosso, Mich. It would turn out not to be the start of a North Pole Express excursion.
This past Sunday (Dec. 22, 2013), I ventured to Owosso, Mich., with my friend Adam to chase and photograph the last runs of the North Pole Express, which were to be pulled by the recently rehabilitated Pere Marquette No. 1225. We would pick the day when an overnight ice storm struck the central part of lower Michigan.
Owosso is a four hour or so drive from the eastern Cleveland suburbs. I spent a fair amount of time online trying to find out how bad the storm was. Had it not been a steam locomotive making its final trips of the year we would not have left home. Information about the extent of the ice storm damage was sketchy when I got up at 4 a.m. to check again.
There were a number of power outages in and around Owosso. What if we got up there and the trips were canceled due to weather?
We had also seen a report that the stoker on the 1225 was inoperative. What if we got up there and the 1225 was sidelined and the trips were being pulled by diesels?
We set out about 5:30 a.m. On the plus side, the major highways in Michigan were fine. We reached Owosso with no problem and I noticed a large plume of smoke in the air. That was a good sign. The 1225 had been fired up.
We parked near the Steam Railroading Institute and could see the 1225 coming toward us on the Great Lakes Central mainline. Another good sign.
There was no train attached to the 1225. That should have been our first clue that something was amiss. The 1225 backed up and then pulled forward onto a stub end track that ended right in front of the SRI’s museum and ticket office. I had a bad feeling about that.
Soon, kids and their parents were pouring out of the museum and doing what kids and their parents do in front of a living, breathing steam locomotive.
We sat in the car waiting for the 1225 to back up onto its train. But it was nearly 10 a.m. — the scheduled departure time for the first North Pole Express trip — and the 1225 wasn’t going anywhere. Our initial thought was that the locomotive had been pulled into this position to enable the passengers to see it and take photographs.
That summation was partially correct. But as the minutes ticked away we noticed parents and their children headed away from the museum and toward their cars in the parking lot across the street. That seemed odd. Adam guessed that some people had come down just to see the steam locomotive.
I was absolutely convinced that there was no way that the SRI folks were going to disappoint dozens of children eagerly awaiting a trip to go see Santa Claus.
But there were too many of them coming out of the museum and finally Adam rolled down his window and asked a woman passing by what was going on. She replied that the trip had been canceled because the “transportation department” wouldn’t give the go ahead for the train to depart.
By that we presumed she meant the railroad. There had been, after all, an ice storm with power outages and trees down all over the place. Perhaps some grade crossing signals weren’t working.
We subsequently learned that those holding tickets on the 10 a.m. trip were told to call the SRI at noon to see if the 4 p.m. trip would operate. If so, they would be accommodated on that trip.
What a major bummer. Had we driven four hours only to see the 1225 move a few hundred feet? We would have plenty of time to kill to find out.
The 1225 continued to sit in steam outside the SRI depot/museum and I took advantage of that to get some photographs that I might not have gotten otherwise had the morning trip ran as scheduled. We also spent some time in Durand — about 11 miles away — getting photographs of Canadian National trains.
We checked back with the SRI folks around noon, but were told a decision to go or no go for the 4 p.m. trip would not be made until 1 p.m. By now most of the would-be passengers for the 10 a.m. trip had gone home or elsewhere.
We found out about 2 p.m. that the afternoon trip would run. At the time, we were getting ready to have lunch at a restaurant in Flint that had only partial electricity because it was on two electrical grids, one of which was out.
We arrived back in Owosso about 3:30 p.m. and the 1225 had been moved and placed against its train. That was a welcome sight.
After the train pulled down to begin boarding, we relocated to a position opposite of the former Woodard Furniture company. The company that for decades built fine furniture is now used for such things as apartment/condos and a restaurant.
As much of a nuisance as the ice had been, it also created a great deal of beauty if, of course, you didn’t have to deal with the power being out at your house or tree limbs having caused damage to your property. We talked to a guy while waiting for the train who said he could not have gotten out of his street in the morning because of fallen limbs.
The train made two boarding stops. By now our major concern was lack of daylight. It was nearly 4:15 p.m. and already the daylight had diminished. We weren’t sure how many photos we would be able to get in the dying light in heavy overcast conditions. It was far from an ideal situation.
As it turned out, I was able to get more images than I thought I might given the conditions. I ended up converting them to black and white because, well, they were virtually black and white to begin with. As it turned out, I kind of liked that.
After the train passed, the chase was one. We weren’t sure what condition the roads would be in. Driving on snow and ice-covered unpaved roads would create some challenges, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it might have been or we feared that it would be.
The ice was a funny thing. All the way to Michigan I worried that the ice would keep us from getting the photographs that we wanted. Once there, I then worried that it would all melt before I had a chance to get some dramatic photographs of the steam train chugging through what I expected to be exquisite beauty. That was because the forecast had been for the temperatures to rise into the middle 30s. But those concerns proved to be unfounded. It would take a long time for this ice to melt away.
Our first photo stop was along Baldwin Road where we shot across ice-covered fields.
Our plan was to get the classic photo of the train by the grain facility at Carland. But that wasn’t possible for two reasons. The train was moving at a good clip and was well ahead of us by the time we got on the move from Baldwin Road, and the weather conditions slowed us down.
Besides, Carland Road was closed before the tracks, probably due to fallen trees and/or wires.
We moved on to North Vincent Road, where I got a shot of the train out the window of the car across a frozen corn field.
We barely got to the crossing of the tracks with Vincent Road ahead of the train.
I thought for sure this would be our last photographs of the North Pole Express unless we could get something in Ashley, which was the train’s ultimate destination. The daylight was greatly diminished and I was only able to these images because of the wonders of digital SLR cameras with their high ISO settings.
In processing these photographs I noted that they are grainy due to the high ISO settings that I needed. Adam and I wished a thousand times that we had been able to chase this train earlier in the day under better lighting conditions. But it wasn’t meant to be.
As it turned out, we were able to get ahead of the 1225 and its train one more time. The last three photographs were taken at the crossing with Michigan Route 57 (Cleveland Road). These are more mood shots than detail shots. I liked how the headlight had taken on a golden glow and illuminated the tracks and everything ahead of it.
In many ways it had been a strange day, a frustrating day due to the ice storm. Adam checked Train Orders.com at one point and learned that back home the sun was shining and two Norfolk Southern heritage units were in town along with some other goodies.
Yet in the end it turned out to be a rewarding day that made the trek to Michigan worthwhile. We could have returned home after the first trip was canceled and, in fact, we talked about doing that. But the lure of getting a steam engine in action was too much and I was pleased with what we were able to get what was available and make the best of it.
Article and Photographs by Craig Sanders
The inside of the museum/SRI depot. Presumably the man at right holding the stuffed toy is about to purchase a Christmas present for a grandchild.
The car boarding signs were placed by the platform with care in hopes that a trip to see Saint Nicholas would soon be there.
A ground-level view inside the cab of the 1225 taken during a snow shower. Note the Big Boy bobble head doll inside the cab. The Big Boy restaurant chain is big in Michigan. The snow was only visible against the cab interior, creating the effect of it being the inside of a snow globe.
A small cloud of steam swirls around the nose of the 1225 as it idles the time away in Owosso hoping for the chance to get out on the mainline.
The 1225 reposes behind the icicles on the fence surrounding the SRI depot/museum. There was plenty of ice everywhere.
The 1225 silently awaits the news about where it would be going later in the day. Would it be out on the mainline or back to the shops?
At last a welcome sight. The train is moving into position for boarding.
The 1225 puts on a smoke show as it approaches Washington Street.
One of the many passenger cars on the North Pole Express. Note the children at the far left getting ready to board for their adventure to the North Pole.
The second boarding stop having been completed, the 1225 is steaming onward.
The North Pole Express has just crossed Shiawassee Street and is approaching the Woodard Furniture Company building.
What a show the 1225 was putting on! Reportedly, most of the “heavy lifting” was being done by the diesel just behind the tender. That explained the absence of the chuffing noise that accompanies a steam locomotive getting up to speed. But the smoke and steam show was superb.
The 1225 passes the ex-Woodard Furniture plant.
The ice is weighing down a pair of trees next to the tracks, thus creating the illusion of the 1225 in passing through an arch.
The 1225 and its train approach the grade crossing at Baldwin Road.
If you ignore the fact that the truck waiting at the crossing of the tracks at North Baldwin Road is contemporary, you can pretend that it’s the late 1940s or early 1950s and the Ann Arbor Railroad is alive and well.
This is one of the few images that I left in color because the bluish cast created a nice mood. It was time for some blue hour specials.
The North Pole Express comes out of a grove of ice-covered trees at Vincent Road.
The cabooses and the train are going away from Vincent Road.
The last photo location of the day was from the Michigan Route 57 crossing.
You can count the rivets in the 1225’s tender.
Despite the low light and weather conditions, a dedicated band of chasers waited for the 1225 and its train at the M57 crossing near Ashley, Mich.