“It’ll never run,” we told ourselves

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, October 11, 2019

Pere Marquette 1225 rolls across the Muskegon River near Temple, Mich., on the Great Lakes Central during its October 5, 2019, Mt. Pleasant–Cadillac excursion. Passengers included members of the club that steamed up the engine in 1975. Scott Shields
I wasn’t the best student Michigan State University ever saw. I went in with the best of intentions, but by the time I graduated (and I did graduate), all I could claim was a mediocre grade point and sketchy job prospects.

But none of that mattered, thanks to the 400-ton beast that stopped me in my tracks when I was on my way to class on my first day at MSU. I had transferred as a sophomore from a small college in September 1970, and I had no idea that my new university possessed a thoroughbred steam locomotive. But there it was, Pere Marquette 2-8-4 1225, hulking in front of me as I walked past the Spartans’ football practice field.

I recall seeing a bunch of students working behind the cyclone fence, brandishing tools and clambering all over the engine. Something was up. So I asked. The guy who seemed to be in charge, a fellow from Saginaw named Randy Paquette, said, “Well, we’re going to restore the engine and run her. You interested?” 

Preposterous as this notion was, his explanation sent a jolt up my spine. I joined the Michigan State University Railroad Club on the spot. 

No one needed to explain what I was looking at. I knew very little about the Pere Marquette Railway at the time, but I was a longtime fan of the Nickel Plate’s famous fleet of Berkshire locomotives, and I could see from the 1225’s muscular profile and its diamond Lima builder’s plate that this engine was made of similar stuff. 

Over the next three years I threw myself into Project 1225, joining a small but intrepid group that flew in the face of the odds and set about trying to do just what Randy Paquette told me they would.

By the time I graduated in the summer of 1973, that beautiful machine had changed my life. I guess I followed Mark Twain’s dictum: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” For me, education wasn’t necessarily books and lectures — it was shearing off staybolt caps with an air hammer or laying out the next issue of the Project 1225 newsletter. 

As 1225's whistle blows, members of the MSU Railroad Club gather on Michigan State's Stadium Drive during the October 5, 1975, stationary fireup of the 2-8-4's boiler. John B. Corns
There isn’t space here to retell the entire story of Project 1225, although I can recommend two books that will do it for you: Pere Marquette 1225, by T.J. Gaffney and Dean Pyers (Arcadia Publishing, 2014) and my own Twelve Twenty-Five: The Life and Times of a Steam Locomotive (MSU Press, 2016).

Either book will show you how the 1225 eventually escaped the MSU campus and ended up having a fine career at the Steam Railroading Institute (SRI) in Owosso, Mich. You’ll see 1225 hauling freight on CSX in October 1990, and performing its famous duet with NKP 765 at the 1991 NRHS convention in Huntington, W.Va. You’ll see how the locomotive made a star turn (albeit animated) in the 2004 movie The Polar Express. You might be surprised to find out just how often the Institute is able to put its most prized asset to work. 

Fast forward to last weekend, October 5, 2019. In an act of generosity and true camaraderie, the SRI invited as many old MSU Railroad Club members as could make it for a round trip behind 1225 from Mt. Pleasant to Cadillac, a 126-mile romp along the old Ann Arbor Railroad, now operated by Great Lakes Central. Eight of us turned up for the trip, including Randy Paquette, now president of the SRI board of directors. 

With the throttle in the steady hands of SRI Chief Mechanical Officer Kevin Mayer (westbound) and SRI board member Preston Claytor (eastbound), the big Berkshire put on a great show as it strode easily up and down the old AA, hauling a sold-out train of 11 cars. No diesel, thank you very much. 

At Cadillac, Mich., on October 5, 2019, the 1225's former MSU crew poses on the front of the engine. Left to right: John Titterton, John Hall, Aarne Frobom, Randy Paquette, Kevin Keefe, Roger Scovill, and Jack Barbier.
Back in the train, when we weren’t sticking our heads out the vestibule (yes, there are places in America where you can still do that behind mainline steam), we gathered in a section of a coach, trading old stories about our college days when we turned the 1225 work site into what the MSU administration thought looked like a junkyard. 

The MSU Railroad Club did not finish the restoration of Pere Marquette 1225. That would come years later in Owosso, triumphantly, under the auspices of the SRI. But let the record show that on October 5, 1975, the railroad club recorded a triumph of its own, firing up the boiler for the first time since the last PM Berks were retired in 1951. That Sunday morning, we thrilled to the sound of the engine’s six-chime Nathan whistle shredding the quiet campus.

Up in Cadillac on Saturday, just before the 1225’s departure on the return leg to Mt. Pleasant, our little band gathered around the front of the engine for a group portrait, similar to one taken at that fireup 44 years ago to the day. Generous in her appreciation of our earlier efforts, SRI Executive Director Kim Springsdorf arranged the shot with SRI photographer George Dines.

Back in our college days, the MSU Railroad Club adopted a smart-ass slogan that became our way of sticking it to The Man, embodied in those days by either the university administration or the occasional know-it-all railfan or, sometimes, our parents. “It’ll never run!” we’d shout from the cab window or from atop the boiler. 

But deep down, I think most of us really believed — quite improbably — that it would.

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