Last revised: June 22, 2023
By: Adam Burns
For anyone who enjoys studying railroad history, Michigan has quite a storied saga with the iron horse dating back to the Erie & Kalamazoo chartered on April 22, 1833.
Several organizations blend this heritage with scenic train rides during the warmer months, including some pulled by classic steam locomotives. One particular noteworthy organization is the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, which maintains and operates Pere Marquette 2-8-4 #1225, the locomotive featured in the hit 2004 feature film, "The Polar Express."
The routes these trains traverse all date back to the 19th century and many would be abandoned if not for the efforts of these volunteer groups to preserve an important aspect of Michigan's history.
The organizations which host Christmas train rides are listed below. Please note! These trips are not official The Polar Express rides.
(Coopersville): Beginning in late November and throughout much of December this railroad features its Santa Train. While Santa is, of course, aboard the train their version is a bit unique in that a princess reads the kids a Christmas tale.
The Coopersville & Marne Railway began in 1988 as a short line freight carrier using 14 miles of former Grand Trunk Western track between Coopersville and Grand Rapids.
At one time the line extended all the way to Lake Michigan at Grand Haven but is no longer active beyond Coopersville. Public excursions are hosted along the western 6 miles between Coopersville and Marne.
The railroad provides a nice experience if you wish to take a train ride; trips are powered by one of two historic diesel switchers; Grand Trunk Western SW9 #7014 or Dupont Chemical 44-toner #3049.
Some of their notable special events aside from the Santa Train include the Bunny Train, Del Shannon Day Car Show Shuttle, Veteran's Free Troop Train, The Famous Pumpkin Train, and The Great Train Robbery.
(Genesee Township): The popular Huckleberry Railroad, part of the Genesee County Parks system, dates back to 1976.
It uses a 3 mile stretch (6-mile round trip for a total ride time of 40 minutes) of the former Pere Marquette Railway's Otter Lake Branch which hugs the western shore of Mott Lake just north of Flint.
This line originally ran from Flint to Fostoria (19.5 miles) and was completed by the 1870's. Much of it was abandoned in the 1970's and what is now used as a heritage railroad was reduced from the standard gauge of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches to a narrow-gauge 3-foot system.
The Huckleberry Railroad is currently landlocked but is a beautifully maintained operation featuring loops at each end, eliminating the need for trains to be turned.
Railfans are draw to the park to witness two historic steam locomotives; Denver & Rio Grande Western 2-8-2 #464 (a Class K-27 "Mudhen" manufactured by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1903) and Alaska Railroad 4-6-0 #2 (built by Baldwin in 1920).
In addition to train rides the park offers other perks such as historic buildings, amusement rides, and seasonal events like the Christmas At Crossroads Holiday Magic.
The holiday festivities begin in late November and last throughout most of December. During this time the train is decorated for the holidays and offers nighttime rides.
(Coldwater): This steam-powered railroad departs from Coldwater's beautifully preserved Lake Shore & Michigan Southern (New York Central) depot that was originally completed circa 1890.
Michigan contains an incredible amount of rail history from logging and mining (iron ore) to main lines and fast streamliners.
A major Canadian railroad, the Canadian National, even served the state through subsidiary Grand Trunk Western. Alas, a great deal of its track has since been abandoned.
The Little River Railroad hosts excursions over short line Michigan Southern between Coldwater and Quincy, a distance of 7 miles.
Occasionally, trips run as far east as Hillsdale, 23 miles from Coldwater. In the NYC era this trackage was once part of its Michigan Division, a secondary route running between Monroe, Michigan and Elkhart, Indiana.
Passengers riding the Little River Railroad are treated to either 0-4-0T #1 (built by the Vulcan Iron Works in 1908 and which once operated in Indiana) or 4-6-2 #110 (a 1911 product of Baldwin) leading their train.
Each December they host the Holiday Express, which is decorated for Christmas and tailored towards the kids!
(Owosso): The SRI offers their North Pole Express beginning in mid-November and lasting throughout most of December.
This is one of the longest Christmas-themed rides you can experience; it lasts four hours during which time kids can see Santa, enjoy cocoa, and partake in live musical entertainment.
The group offers different classes of service; Coach, Cocoa (which includes unlimited cocoa, a cookie, and a souvenir mug), Caboose, and Deluxe Coach.
Please note! The SRI owns the actual steam locomotive used in "The Polar Express" movie, Pere Marquette 2-8-4 #1225 which often pulls the train.
The history of SRI is an interesting tale involving a single locomotive, previously mentioned #1225. It was donated by Chesapeake & Ohio to Michigan State University in 1957 where it remained on static display until a group of railfans took an interest in its long term preservation and operation.
As a result, the Michigan State University Railroad Club was formed in 1970, later renamed as the Michigan State Trust For Railway Preservation. In February, 1983 #1225 was moved to Ann Arbor Railroad's locomotive shop in Owosso for restoration.
After two years of work she was fired (started) for the first time in November, 1985. It was the first time the 2-8-4 moved under its own power in 34 years.
Today, SRI is a educational enterprise, teaching the public about steam-era technology. They host excursions during various times throughout the year.
(Clinton): This little tourist line offers the Santa Special excursions during the holiday season each December. They last an hour running from Clinton to Tecumseh and back.
Please note the cars they use are not heated so please dress appropriately!
The railroad began in 1982 as the non-profit Southern Michigan Railroad Society; they began hosting excursions after purchasing then-Conrail's Clinton Secondary Track in 1984 for $100,000.
This line was a longtime New York Central corridor which originally extended from Jackson, Michigan to Toledo, Ohio (71 miles). As a secondary route its need dwindled over the years and was abandoned in stages.
Today the track extends to Tecumseh while the railroad is still connected to the national network east of Adrian with short line Adrian & Blissfield (only a very short section has been removed for safety purposes in the event of a runaway car).
While this quaint operation is not well-financed like the Strasburg Railroad, Grand Canyon Railway, or Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad it nevertheless offers a nice experience for anyone interested in enjoying a short train ride.