Quite a few Michigan State University alumni have made a name for themselves in Hollywood. One of the most unlikely movie stars to come out of East Lansing is 1225, a steam engine that spent more than 25 years on the campus.
Originally built for Pere Marquette Railway, 1225 appeared in the 2004 Christmas blockbuster “The Polar Express,” an animated movie starring Tom Hanks as a conductor who, on Christmas Eve, takes a group of children on the ride of their lives. But 1225’s journey — from working locomotive to the MSU campus to a railroad museum in Owosso and then to movie fame — is a story in itself.
Gabriel Dotto, director of MSU Press, set out to find a writer to tell the train’s story. He approached Kevin P. Keefe, a 1973 MSU graduate and a former editor of Trains magazine. During his time at MSU, Keefe worked on early restoration of the historic engine. Keefe leapt at the opportunity, and the result is “Twelve Twenty-Five: The Life and Times of a Steam Locomotive,” a 214-page book released last month by MSU Press.
City Pulse caught up with the author as he was navigating northern Michigan by car, on his way to accept a book award from the Historical Society of Michigan. Keefe’s interest in trains goes back to his childhood.
“I was a rail fan since I was 2 or 3,” Keefe said.
When Keefe showed up on campus in 1970, he lived in a dorm on the southwest side of campus. It was there he discovered 1225, a neglected steam engine that was given to the university in 1957.
“When I first saw it, I said, ‘Wow, that is really cool,’” he recalled.
He volunteered with the MSU Railroad Club, where a group of students had begun a massive restoration project to put 1225 back on the rails again. Keefe describes that incredible undertaking in his book, which is illustrated with hundreds of spectacular photographs of the 1225 and other historic engines.
Keefe’s favorite photograph, featured on the cover, shows the restored 240-ton locomotive chugging along in a fall scene. He describes the photograph, which was taken in 2008, as “timeless.”
The steam engine’s trip to Hollywood is mapped out in a chapter titled “The Christmas Locomotive.” Chris Van Allsburg, children’s author and illustrator of the “Polar Express,” attended MSU football games as a child. He recalls climbing on the giant engine and seeing the numbers 1225 emblazoned on the front. Those numbers, which he associated with Dec. 25, found their way into his award-winning children’s book and the subsequent movie.
After the engine’s restoration was completed, in 1983, the 1225 was put back on the rails and transferred to Owosso’s Steam Railroading Institute, where it still resides.
After the move, the 1225 became an excursion ride for would-be — and wannabe — rail engineers who paid $400 for the experience of running the locomotive. One of first to sign up for the ride was Randy Paquette, who joined the restoration crew in 1969 and eventually became president of the MSU Railroad Club.
“The MSU Rail Club guru finally had a chance to fulfill a dream that went back more than a quarter century,” Keefe writes in his book.
That dream was nearly dashed on several occasions. Some MSU administrators saw the engine as a blight on the carefully coiffed campus. Among them was Jack Breslin, the powerful vice president of MSU. When the MSU Railroad Club purchased a 1914 RPO mail car for storing tools and equipment, Paquette was called in for a tongue lashing from Breslin.
“I got yelled at, no question about it,” Paquette recalls in the book. “I had to promise him we’d keep the car in good condition.”
The author will be one of the featured speakers at an all-day railroad event at the Library of Michigan Oct. 8. The event, which features railroad historians and authors, explores the history of railroading. Keefe will also ride the locomotive as it pulls out of Owosso Nov. 5 for a 75th anniversary celebration run to Clare and back.
Keefe, who is looking forward to another ride in the 1225, remembers his first experience riding the locomotive after its restoration.
“It was an overwhelming thrill,” he said, “especially having seen it as a dead hunk of cold metal.”
Michigan Rails: Authors, Books, Maps and More
8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8
$15 (includes breakfast and lunch)
Lake Michigan Room, Library of Michigan
702 W. Kalamazoo St., Lansing
(517) 373-1300, michigan.gov/libraryofmichigan