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Polar Express Trains On The Crab Orchard & Egyptian

February 6, 2010

On a sunny autumn afternoon in October, 1978, the last passenger train operated by the Crab Orchard & Egyptian Railroad departed Marion, Illinois. For six years the railroad had made its name as a tourist hauler, carrying passengers from the depot downtown to Ordill on the edge of the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge and return. But recently passenger counts had fallen off, due in part to a fire that gutted the old depot and news stories that followed inaccurately announcing the railroad had closed.

The train that left Marion that day represented two eras of the railroad. Behind little 2-4-2 #5 were two of the railroad’s former Illinois Central commuter cars that had been on the property since the railroad’s beginning. Coupled behind the second coach was an empty piggyback flatcar, which represented the railroad’s future as a freight-only common carrier. When the train returned to Marion later in the day, passenger service had ended for good. “I don’t intend to revive it,” railroad president Hugh Crane was quoted as saying in an article in Trains Magazine in 1980.

He never did.

However by late 2009, a change in management led to a revival of sorts. For the first time in 31 years, the railroad announced that it would be running scheduled public passenger trains in the month leading up to the holiday season. The trains were billed as The Polar Express, ignoring the usual shortage of polar conditions in southern Illinois; after all, it was the thought that counted.

All of the railroad’s passenger cars were long since gone; #5 and two coaches being the last to leave in 1985. Still on the property was the first piece of equipment to be acquired by the railroad in 1972, caboose #11. While the caboose was equipped with seats, it by no means had the capacity for the desired number of riders. It was also not graced by the presence of any sort of heaters, which would also be less that desirable as December progressed. To make up for the deficiency, the railroad leased a former Santa Fe hi-level car from Mid America Railcar in St. Louis.

The day after Thanksgiving may be known these days as “Black Friday,” but for railfans in southern Illinois November 27 was anything but. Shortly after noon Crab Orchard & Egyptian SW1200 1161 stood in front of the partially reconstructed depot in Marion, coupled to Santa Fe hi-level car “Mesa Verde” and caboose #11 waiting to board passengers for the first run of the “Polar Express.”


The trips were well patronized, as everyone from railfans to families came out to take an hour and a half ride out to Ordill and back for a modest ten-dollar fare.


While it may not have been toasty warm inside, plenty of people did ride aboard the caboose on the warmer days.


Departing Marion in the caboose, the train has just passed the engine house and Union Pacific interchange track.


Westbound for Ordill, the “Polar Express” crosses Carbon Street.


Upstairs in the coach section of the “Mesa Verde” the seats were a bit more comfortable that the seats in the caboose, which were transplanted from one of the Illinois Central commuter cars back in the C.O.&E.’s tourist line days.


The westbound “Polar Express” at a classic C.O.&E. photo location: approaching Bainbridge Road.


The view from the rear of the caboose west of Bainbridge.


A mother and her son enjoying a ride in the caboose.


The train rounds the curve approaching Ordill.


Stopped at the runaround track at Ordill, the crew gets ready to cut 1161 off to swap ends for the return to Marion.


Conductor Edward Bridges is used to working freight cars at Ordill with 1161. Looking spiffy in a clean conductor’s uniform is quite a change of pace as he gets ready to couple 1161 to the caboose for the return to Marion.


Eastbound for Marion, Conductor Bridges looks back over his train from the cab of 1161.


A stocking hangs in the window of the caboose as 1161 pulls the train back to Marion.


Conductor Bridges helps people detrain back at the depot in Marion.


On a late afternoon in December, the Polar Express is eastbound from Ordill at sunset.


Photography by Mary Rae McPherson except for 1978 photo by Jerry Mart

Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Greg Nevels permalink
    February 16, 2010 8:56 pm

    My old buddy Edward is looking pretty sharp!

  2. April 30, 2010 6:52 am

    Thanks for sharing these photos and the story.

  3. melody brown permalink
    September 17, 2011 6:05 pm

    I want buy 6 tickets to ride the polar exspress this holiday season (2011)

    • September 20, 2011 3:44 pm

      Call up the folks at the CO&E and they should be able to tell you when tickets will be on sale.


  4. Lisa permalink
    December 7, 2013 8:48 pm

    do you still offer “polar express” rides on this rail?

    • May 26, 2014 8:43 am

      I have nothing to do with the CO&E other than being a railfan and friend of several of the people involved.

      That said, the Santa trains have not run for several years, and I don’t know of any plans to revive them in the future.


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