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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Lots of families will be reading or watching "The Polar Express" this week before Christmas. In the movie, every sight and sound of that magical Christmas train is based on real-life steam locomotive. As Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports, the Pere Marquette 1225 has its own Christmas story to tell and it involves a very close call with the scrap yard.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE)

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: The Pere Marquette 1225 is one of the biggest operating steam locomotives in the U.S. In 2002, Hollywood film crews came to Owosso, Michigan to capture the look and sound of this 400-ton behemoth. The movie made the 1225 a bigger tourist draw than it already was. On this bitter cold Friday night in December, hundreds of people line up on the platform outside the steam railroading museum to ride a 66-year-old piece of American history.

Here's first-timer Maya Holstad.

MAYA HOLSTAD: I think this is going to be so much fun. I'm just so excited right now. It is so cool.

SAMILTON: And longtime train lover Don West.

DON WEST: When I was a kid, I used to ride the trains quite a bit in Ohio. It's a pleasure to see a train like that again.

SAMILTON: Finally, the train arrives, 16 feet tall, puffing huge blasts of steam. The smell of burning coal fills the air, and the ground literally shakes. Dan Kirschman has volunteered here since 1987 and he says a steam engine isn't just a machine.

DAN KIRSCHMAN: A steam locomotive is more like a living, breathing thing. As it's running, it has a pulse. It has a character.

SAMILTON: Soon the train will leave for its hour-long run to the "North Pole," aka Ashley, Mich. It's a magical scene, fit for a storybook or the cinema, as long as you're not the one shoveling the coal. Chief Mechanical Officer Kevin Mayer says, while steam locomotives are romantic, they're not very efficient so they seemed doomed to extinction when the diesel era arrived in the 1950s.

KEVIN MAYER: It basically came overnight and these things would just be in a big long line, and scrappers would be just going right down the line, cutting 'em up.

SAMILTON: And so, the 1225 waited its turn for scrapping. But in late 1957, a local college trustee decided to salvage one of these great titans for display. Volunteer Bill Wilson knows the story as well as anyone.

BILL WILSON: So they called the roundhouse foreman in New Buffalo and says, find one that's in pretty good shape.

SAMILTON: So on the day before Christmas, the 1225 was spared.

WILSON: Went back, and he looked and yeah, we'll give 'em 1225, that's Christmas Day. It'll be a nice Christmas present. The rest is history.

SAMILTON: The engine ended up at the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, which eventually got it running again, until 2009, when its aging boiler had to be replaced. Four years later and nearly $1 million spent, it's back on the rails again, just in time for Christmas.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE)

SAMILTON: And for those excited kids and adults who love the movie, staff and volunteers play up all the references. There's even someone who pretends to be the ghost of the Hobo character. And of course, there's nice hot chocolate once you get on board. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton.

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