Train Lovers Make Tracks To Traverse City In December
“Look! Here it comes!”
Almost in unison, a dozen small heads swivel to the left. Sure enough, with a clatter of metal wheels and a cloud of blue smoke, a tiny locomotive emerges from the dark railroad tunnel, pulling a chain of boxcars and tanker cars in its wake. It slows down to take a sharp curve, then speeds up again as it travels past an exquisite landscape of miniature homes and forests.
The same scene is being played out across this room in Traverse City, where another model railroad setup has attracted the attention of several fascinated adults. In fact, little trains are chugging and whistling and clattering along in almost every room of this sprawling hundred-year-old building.
Every December, thousands of visitors gather in the northern Michigan resort community of Traverse City for a three-week “Festival of Trains.” Held at the Grand Traverse Heritage Center, a former library building surrounded by the mansions of 19th century lumber barons, -- the Festival celebrates model trains of every type, size and description, and has been a prized part of the community’s holiday celebration for almost 20 years.
Even children who’ve never seen or heard a real train in their lives watch in wide-eyed fascination as these miniature marvels go through their paces, chugging and clattering through elaborate displays that evoke the sights and sounds of a vanished American landscape. But there’s an added nostalgia about model trains that spans the generations -- many visitors to the Festival of Trains are adults who want their children and grandchildren to experience a cherished piece of their own childhood memories.
“There’s something about trains that just fascinates people,” said Bill Kirschke of the Northern Michigan Railroad Club, one of the many volunteers who supervise the complex electric layouts and explain their workings to visitors. “It’s something that gets the older people just as excited as the kids.”
Although northern Michigan hasn’t had regular train service for more than a generation, the railroads are deeply interwoven into the region’s history. Trains hauled lumber from the forests and produce from the farms, and they helped launch the local tourist industry. (In fact, the computer-generated steam locomotive featured in the film “The Polar Express” was modeled on the PM 1225, a real-life engine that ran between Grand Rapids and Traverse City during the 1940s on the long-vanished Pere Marquette Railroad.)
Many of the model trains, buildings and layouts used in the festival belong to the City of Traverse City (which may be one of the few municipalities to own such an extensive collection of toys) but most of the work is done by a corps of more than 40 volunteers. Long before Labor Day, they begin assembling layouts and designing scenery
“There are always new attractions and special extras, and people look forward to them all year,” says Heritage Center director Patti DeAgostino. “We had over 8,000 people attend the 2007 festival, and we’re expecting to see 10,000 this year.”
The 2007 festival was organized around a “circus train” theme, and organizers are keeping quiet about what the coming season’s theme will be. One new wrinkle, though, will be a “gingerbread train” competition where chefs and bakers from the area’s many restaurants and resorts will be invited to create edible model trains with gingerbread and icing.
The 2008 Festival of Trains will be held December 13 through January 1. Hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The Heritage Center is located at 322 Sixth Street in Traverse City’s historic Central Neighborhood. For more information call the Grand Traverse Heritage Center at (231) 995-0313 or go to their web site at www.gtheritagecenter.org.
WHAT ELSE TO DO:
One of Traverse City’s most charming Yuletide events is the Wellington Inn’s annual “Inn at Christmastime” open house, a fundraiser for the Grand Traverse Historical Society. Florists and artisans literally ‘deck the halls’ of this beautifully restored 1905 neoclassical mansion with a spectacular display of holiday designs and decorations. This year’s event will be held December 5-7, 2008, and guests will be able to tour the entire mansion, enjoy holiday entertainment by local musicians, and take refreshments provided by local businesses in the third floor ballroom.
Traverse City is an intensely musical community, thanks in part to the nearby presence of the Interlochen Center for the Arts, which means its annual slate of holiday concerts is among the best in the country. One of the area’s longtime musical traditions is the annual Messiah Community Sing. For 30 years, Traverse City residents have gathered to sing Handel’s magnificent Christmas oratorio at Central United Methodist Church, joined by an 18-member orchestra, organist and guest soloists. This year’s event takes place December 7, 2008.
But all this musical celebrating comes to a head the weekend of December 12-14, 2008, when three separate events all jostle for the attention of concertgoers. First, there’s the Interlochen Dance Ensemble and Orchestra’s production of Coppélia, one of the jewels of classical ballet. An enchanting comedy about a love triangle between a feisty village girl, her fiancé, and an alluring clockwork doll, "Coppélia" sparkles with sumptuous costumes, spirited music and magnificent dancing. Then there’s the Traverse Symphony Orchestra’s Holiday Spectacular! concert, in which renowned conductor Franz Anton Krager leads the TSO in a program of holiday favorites
For more detailed information about holiday events and attractions in the Traverse City, Michigan area, log on to the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau’s extensive Web site, www.VisitTraverseCity.com or call the Bureau’s toll-free number, 1-800-TRAVERSE.