An Unscheduled Side-Trip
I went to Owosso last week to have lunch with my brother, his wife and two of my cousins at the Wrought Iron Grill. The building once housed the Woodard Furniture Company which was known for their quality wrought iron furniture.
Cousin Paula has been working on tracking the paternal side of our family. While we were eating, she mentioned that Great-grandpa had come to Owosso – via Germany and Toledo, Ohio – to work at the Ann Arbor railroad. That got me to thinking. There was something I’d been meaning to do for several months. Why not do it today?
After we left the restaurant, I drove the five or so blocks to the Steam Engine Institute on Washington Street. The Institute is in a nondescript building that would be easy to pass by. In fact, I missed the open gate to the small parking lot and ended up parking on the next street over. The building’s humble appearance belies the vast treasures inside and beyond.
As I walked along the front of the building looking for the entrance, I saw a lighted Christmas tree in the window. It was late September, but still too early for Christmas decorations as far as I’m concerned. Then I realized, the decorations are probably up all year because the Institute owns the steam locomotive that was the basis for the magical railroad steam engine in Steven Spielberg’s movie, The Polar Express.
I found the entrance to the Institute on the side of the building. When I opened the door and stepped inside, I saw that the large room was filled with informational displays, photographs and antique railroad equipment but no one was at the reception counter. I heard voices and followed the sound towards the back of the building. That was where I started my journey of discovery. Penny Green, one of the volunteers walked me through the displays, explained the rusty old equipment and answered all my questions.
She told me of the time Mr. Spielberg came to the Institute with his crew to photograph the big black engine #1225 and record the sounds of the steam train for the Polar Express. The crew also photographed three of the men who work at the Institute maintaining the engine. Their images were digitalized and used as characters in the movie. One of the men became the train’s engineer.
Then we walked out to the train yard. A caboose was sitting on the tracks. I told Penny, that when I was a child, I waved at the men who stood at the back of the caboose, holding the railing, as the trains sped past at the end of the road where I grew up.
She took me inside of the caboose and showed me the wood stove where the men cooked their meals and kept warm when the weather was cold. Along with the wood stove, they had an icebox, a pull-down table, sleeping benches and a bathroom. All in all, the caboose was as comfortable as a modern-day motorhome.
Also in the yard were a Pullman car and a dismantled engine, both being repaired and restored. Penny referred to a restored car as being “born” which I thought was the perfect way to put it. She also said that most of the train cars were donated to the Institute over the years. She showed me the “round house” which isn’t a house at all but a mammoth rotating, gear-driven circular machine that is used to turn around the heavy train cars and engines.
At the end of the rail yard we came to a large building. She unlocked the door and flipped on the lights. There stood the #1225 engine. It was gleaming pitch black and HUGE, majestic. I looked up and up in awe. The engine was a good fifteen to twenty feet tall. I stepped up to a wheel and it was almost as tall as me. Then she asked if I’d like a look inside. My eyes got wide and I said, “Yes!” I placed a hand on the railings at each side of the narrow, ladder-like steps and put my right foot on the first rung. “Left foot first,” she said, so that’s what it was.
My heart beat double-time as I stepped inside. I was in the space a man would’ve stood to shovel coal into the firebox. To my back was the coal and in front of me was the open maw. Penny shouted up to me that it takes eighteen hours to bring up a full head of steam.
Even with the engine cold and in storage, I could feel its awesome power and the depth of history it represented. I took pictures, hoping they would capture the essence of the machine.
I climbed back down the ladder, left foot first, my heart still pounding. We walked through the door and into the sunlight of the yard. Penny turned back to shut off the lights and lock up. I glanced over her shoulder at the mighty #1225. Its presence filled all the space in the building and I could feel it sleeping, waiting until the steam once again powered her up.
We turned toward the Institute and on the way back Penny explained the on-going projects, constant rebuilding and restoration that goes on every day. She said the volunteers were hard at work getting ready for their next events which will be a Zombie run in October and then the big Polar Express trips during the Christmas season.
As I got in my car and headed home, I was glad I’d taken the time for a side-trip today. The Steam Railroad Institute is an amazing magical place. I hoped I’d captured some of that magic in my photos. My thoughts turned to Great-grandpa. I imagined the sights and sounds of his world and I felt a little closer to a man I’d only seen in photographs.