The fake train robbery

By Allan I. Ross
Photo by John Grembowski

Owosso train institute gives alternate look at Michigan history

Before highways crisscrossed the state, carving concrete trails from Detroit to Grand Rapids and Monroe to Sault Ste. Marie, train tracks snaked across the landscape, guiding steam-puffing locomotives through Michigan’s hardy wilderness. It was a gentler time, with engineers controlling the action from the cab, conductors punching tickets in the cars and bloodthirsty banditos scrambling on board and commandeering all your loot. Ah yes, those were the days.

Although train robberies were, in actuality, rare occurrences, the image of masked thieves running along the tops of moving trains is seared into the brain of any kid who grew up watching Roy Rogers or Bugs Bunny on Saturday mornings. But this weekend, mid-Michigan adventure seekers will get to see what it felt like to square off against Black Bart and Jesse James at Owosso’s Steam Railroading Institute, which has set up a series of mock train robberies for anyone who wants to get a taste of the Wild West — and maybe a little bit of Michigan history.

Institute spokeswoman Terry Bush said this event is an opportunity for people to connect with a vital part of local history.

“Some people who come have had parents or grandparents who worked on the railroad, and it helps them feel closer to their pasts,” Bush said. “Or, at the very least, it’s an opportunity to go out and admire the scenery and laugh with other people. Basically, it’s something different that most people have never done, and a fun way to spend a day.”

The Steam Railroading Institute, founded in 1969 at Michigan State University, is dedicated to educating the public about steam-era railroad technology. It was created by the Michigan State Trust for Railway Preservation, which was founded on the singular goal of restoring a steam locomotive that had been languishing in the shadow of the original Spartan Stadium for 12 years: the Pere Marquette Railway No. 1225, which is housed on-site.

If that name rings a bell, you’ve probably read the 1985 children’s book “The Polar Express” or seen the 2004 animated film adapted from that book about a mystical train that whisks kids off to the North Pole to meet Santa. The fictional Polar Express was directly modeled on the PM 1225 by East Grand Rapids native and children’s author Chris Van Allsburg. When director Robert Zemeckis was making the movie, he actually motion captured the train itself — going as far as utilizing the distinctive sound of the locomotive’s whistle.

The PM 1225 was built in 1941, was fully restored in 1988 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; all excursions occur on the Great Lakes Central Railroad, servicing Tuscola, Saginaw and Bay counties.

“Diesel trains came in after WWII, and they were cheaper to run, so all the steam engines went to scrap,” Bush said. “Seeing them on the tracks is such a rare and wonderful sight, and nothing sounds or rides quite like them. It’s part of our development as a country, and we’re proud to be a part of that.”

Even if the 1225 wasn’t out of commission for repairs (it’s undergoing government-mandated maintenance that will keep it off the tracks through the end of the season), performance duties for the robbery show will fall to one of the other steam trains in residence. Bush said that the tour takes guests about half an hour out, while faux U.S. marshals patrol the aisles. Train passengers are given fake money, so they don‘t have part with their own green when “robbed.”

“The train is stopped by bandits, who clamber aboard from all angles,” Bush said. “We have some actors who call themselves the Guitar Slim Desperados, and they stage a few different (scenarios). This is the first time we’ve done a performance-themed ride, and we wanted to kick it up a notch and create a memorable experience.”

Bush said the first robbery, held last month, was a soaring success, laying the tracks for three more events that will be staged over the course of the summer — this weekend, July 20-21 and Aug. 24-25. The show takes place over one to two passenger cars and two cabooses, accommodating about 200 people. Bush said passengers are encouraged to dress in 1880s-era clothing (finally, a chance to put those bustles and top hats to use) and play along when the show gets rolling — literally.

“It’s one of only four operating mainline steam locomotives in the state,” Bush said. “And it’s the only one that can get all the way up to 60 miles per hour. It’s really something to see.”

Other upcoming trips include a train ride to a mock hobo camp the first week of July, rides to Howell’s Melon Festival in mid-August and the annual fall color tours in October. The Institute also provides semi-annual sightseeing trips to casinos, allowing passengers to get a look at some of mid-Michigan’s last remaining virgin scenery.

“They’re quiet, scenic trips with gorgeous back country roads and farmland landscape you don’t normally get to see,” Bush said. “Then you pass through the arteries of these small towns and gain a new perspective of these nearby Michigan cities. It takes a little bit of thinking to figure out where you are.”

Or when you are, as the case may be.

Steam Railroading Institute’s Train Robbery Rides
June 7-8, July 20-21, Aug. 24-25
Rides at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m.
$15 adults, $10 ages 11 and under.
Steam Railroading Institute
405 S. Washington St., Owosso
(517) 925-9464