Last revised: June 22, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Christmas train rides have grown in popularity at heritage railroads throughout the country following the 2004 release of "The Polar Express" by Warner Brothers Pictures, starting Tom Hanks.
In the years since many have adapted the movie into a real-life train ride where families can enjoy a magical trip to the "North Pole" by rail with the rides usually lasting a little over an hour.
However, some organizations have found the licensing of these events too expensive and as such have adopted their own version of a holiday train ride, many of which are quite successful and sellout quickly.
Ohio is home to numerous tourist railroads, including one of the most popular, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. In addition to hosting trips during the holiday season the railroad is well regarded for its seasonal dinner trains and general excursions hosted throughout the year.
The information presented here highlights all of organizations hosting Christmas train rides within Ohio. Once again, these are not officially licensed "The Polar Express" trips, but events provided by each individual railroad. Links to each are provided.
(Peninsula): One of America's top five excursions can be found at Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.
Three factors contribute heavily to its success; the Cuyahoga Valley National Park's spectacular scenery, the region's population density, and the railroad's topnotch service.
Its history dates back to the Valley Railway (VR) which had opened from Cleveland to Bowerston, Ohio via Canton and Akron, by 1884.
In 1889 it was acquired by the Baltimore & Ohio, acting as another connection to Cleveland for the eastern trunk line (the line south of Akron became a stub-end branch).
In 1967 the B&O began hosting excursions through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. These continued off and on until 1986 when then-Chessie System lost interest in the affair.
After the railroad and federal government worked out an agreement, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation into law on November 6, 1986 authorizing the National Park Service to purchase the park trackage for $2.5 million.
Today, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad maintains 51 miles and hopes to eventually run trains into downtown Cleveland. It has become well-known for its fine fleet of passenger cars, themed trains, and other special runs.
For instance, in August, 2018 it acquired three beautiful, fully restored stainless-steel dome cars that had originally operated on the famous "California Zephyr."
They include dome-coach Silver Lariat, dome-sleeper-observation Silver Solarium, baggage Silver Peak, and sleeper Silver Rapids (along with baggage Silver Peak). If you want to experience rail travel from the 1950's consider a trip to Peninsula, Ohio!
After years of hosting official "The Polar Express" trips the railroad has switched gears and now operates its own Christmas event known as the "North Pole Adventure."
(Nelsonville): The organization's longest running event is the Santa Train held during late November through mid-December with several runs made each day.
The train is festively decorated for Christmas; during the trip kids get to meet Santa and receive a candy cane treat. In some ways its amazing the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway even exists today.
It was originally the idea of Frank L. McCauley, Ted Goodman, and Jerry Ballard who wanted to acquire a former section of Detroit, Toledo & Ironton in the early 1970's and operate excursions over what was to be called the "Salt Creek Railroad."
Alas, the line was scrapped before they could purchase it. Next, they found a section of the Chesapeake & Ohio's Monday Creek Branch which was also up for abandonment. The segment, which ran between Carbon Hill and Nelsonville, was acquired in 1972.
It was named the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway as a nod to the original company which built the line (it later became part of the C&O's Hocking Division).
Today, the HVSR operates 12 miles of the C&O's old Armitage Subdivision from Nelsonville to East Logan.
Trains are usually diesel powered by they also now have an operating steam locomotive, Ohio Power 0-6-0 #3 (built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1920). Trains depart from the beautifully restored depot in Nelsonville.
(Lebanon): The North Pole Express allows kids to experience a half-hour train ride to see Santa and Mrs. Claus while enjoying treats (hot chocolate and cookies) along the way with entertainment provided by the elves.
During the trip kids will also receive a small gift. Its close proximity to Cincinnati and Dayton makes the railroad an easy drive for many.
It began in 1985 over a section of the former Pennsylvania Railroad, which once linked Cincinnati with Dayton. Previous to PRR ownership the corridor had originally been built as a three-foot, "narrow-gauge."
Its earliest predecessor was the Miami Valley Narrow Gauge Railway formed in 1874 to link Cincinnati with Xenia, via Lebanon (55 miles) but resources were exhausted after only 46 miles had been graded.
It was reorganized as the Cincinnati Northern Railway and completed to Lebanon on May 30, 1881. The CN went on to join one of the largest narrow-gauge systems ever built in 1882, the Toledo, Cincinnati & St. Louis Railway.
At its peak it stretched across much of western Ohio from north to south. In addition, by the early 1880's the TC&StL had connected all of the cities in its name. Alas, promoters of three-foot railroads could not sustain it as a secondary American gauge.
The TC&StL fell into receivership on July 31, 1883 and parts of the system, and its subsidiaries, were later sold off and converted to the standard gauge of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches.
The PRR acquired the section through Lebanon, then known as the Dayton, Lebanon & Cincinnati Railroad (organized in 1887), in 1915.
It would later abandon the line between Lebanon and Lytle in 1939 while PRR successor Conrail sold the section south of Lebanon to short line Indiana & Ohio Railway between 1985 and 1987.
(Findlay): This organization, based in Findlay, operates a 1/4-scale railroad and hosts several special events throughout the year, including the North Pole Express during the holidays. It operates Fridays-Sundays from late November through early January.