On September 17, more than one hundred people gathered at the Chehalis Centralia Railroad and Museum to celebrate a very big birthday. There was the usual birthday cake and punch, but the guest of honor may not have been what you would have expected. It was Locomotive CC No. 15, which turned 100-years-old this year. As the 2016 holiday season approaches, this valuable, aged locomotive and Chehalis-Centralia Railroad and Museum (CCR&M) are about to get remarkably busy; perhaps busier than ever before.
In 1993, president of the organization Bill Thompson and his wife, secretary and treasurer, Wanda, made their fleeting transition into steam train world. The twosome have owned and operated Bills Hydraulic Repair in Chehalis for the past 23 years, and it was here that Bill began to provide steam train services. They fell hard in the arms of the extraordinary nonprofit and more than 20 years later, they are running the show.
I was quick to learn that this pair has always had a hand in public service. “My husband would say she’s a professional volunteer,” laughed Wanda. They have held active roles on the Lewis County Fair Board and she has dedicated her time to the Chehalis School fundraising committee for the past 35 years. And I thought I was busy?
The railroad nonprofit has been in operation since 1986, but it was not until Bill and Wanda became involved that the special events such as the Polar Express came about. There are currently seven board members, three officers, and they all hold active roles in running the train. The steam train takes an engineer, conductor, brakeman and a fireman to operate, and CCR&M has a crew of 16 who take turns and shifts running CC No. 15.
On October 1, 2016, at 12:00 a.m., the sixth-annual Polar Express Tickets went up for sale online. Wanda could not help herself from staying up and watching them sell. By 2:00 a.m., 37% of the tickets sold, and they have all since sold-out. This year, the group even added three additional 9:00 p.m. departures to keep up with growing demand, bringing CCR&M to 24 rides.
“If I last 24 rides, I don’t know if I’ll do it again,” joked Wanda.
Many of the customers return for the holiday experience, with some groups of friends and families as large as 55. During the trip on the Polar Express, CC No. 15 pulls along two coaches holding 50-52 passengers each, on a journey to the North Pole to see Santa Claus. Just like the classic book written and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1985, the on-board volunteer group of four, work effortlessly to recreate The Polar Express. They hole-punch golden tickets, pass out cookies, hot chocolate, and the famous first gift of Christmas—the silver bell. Children hear the book reading and anxiously await the trains stop for a visit from Santa Claus himself.
“One thing people like about ours is the personal touch,” explained Wanda. “We have the Polar Express read by a volunteer rather than a recording.”
Families are encouraged to wear their pajamas, get photographs and there are volunteers redeeming tickets in the ticket depot, bagging cookies, and making hot chocolate. Wanda herself efficiently creates the seating arrangements.
If you were not one of the night owls and you did not set an alarm to snag Polar Express tickets this year, there is another option from Chehalis-Centralia Railroad and Museum. They offer a Santa Steam Train, which Wanda claims is a little more appropriate for the small children who might not understand the magic of recreating the book. Santa Steam Train rides are approximately 30 minutes long, with Santa visiting everyone on-board during the course of the trip. Children get hot chocolate and cookies following their return to the depot, and the tickets are only $10. There is still availability for the Santa Train, but certainly not for long.
Throughout the year, the Steam Train offers a multitude of events. From June to September, select dates are set aside for the Murder Mystery Dinner Train catered by Kit Carson’s of Chehalis, and playwrite and acting performed by The Evergreen Playhouse. Families can partake in the Easter Train rides, which brought in over 1,200 people in 2016, the Mother’s Day Brunch Train in May, and the Pumpkin Steam Trains running October 29 and 30 of this year.
The most meaningful train event for Wanda however, is her special needs project. This unadvertised event gained inspiration from a very ill little boy named Garrett. Garrett would talk his nurses into bringing him to the railroad museum, where Wanda quickly saw the sparkling fascination in his eyes for the Steam Train.
“When I saw him and realized how much he knew about trains, I wondered if there were other kids like Garrett who had that same love for trains.” Since meeting Garrett, she has put together a program that provides an unforgettable experience for children with special needs and their families. Garrett passed away two years ago at the age of 16. But you can bet CC No. 15 pulls the coaches for this special group each year with little Garrett in mind.
Chehalis-Centralia Railroad and Museum is always looking for volunteers to help put on these meaningful events. Groups of four are still in need for the Polar Express 2016. It is an excellent time of year to volunteer your valuable time, with some remarkable people, celebrating children and the joy of Christmas.