Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

All aboard! Take a ride through an Ohio Christmas tradition

A black train engine decorated in rainbow Christmas lights
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Findlay's North Pole Express takes visitors through a loop of holiday lights displays. The train is powered by a coal-fired steam engine, and generates just as much excitement as the lights.

When the North Pole Express chugs into its station, the ground outside the Northwest Ohio Railroad Preservation Museum trembles. A cloud of billowing steam whooshes by as a whistle announces the engine’s grand entrance.

All at once, the blur of motion comes to a halt, and this train is ready to take a crew of passengers through the twinkling lights of Findlay, Ohio’s very own North Pole.

“The entire quarter mile track is completely decorated with Christmas displays,” said Jim Gabriel, the organization’s vice president and one of the people who organizes this attraction each year.

Gabriel loves trains, and this one is extra special.

“This is a quarter-scale coal-fired steam engine,” he said.

It’s a fraction the size of a real train — each car seats just one adult, plus perhaps a child. But it’s no toy.

Two brothers in denim overalls, sweatshirts and soot-covered Santa hats stand in front of a holiday train display.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Brothers Nick and Robert Taylor stand by the engine of a quarter-sized train. They've been working with trains since they were kids, when their father shared his love of locomotives with them.

Engineer Nick Taylor steps out from behind the driver’s seat. The white in his Santa hat is blackened with soot.

“We're putting fire in with our shovel and we're building the fire and running the blower to regulate how the fire is burning,” Taylor said. He’s been operating this train since he was a little kid. “Essentially what you’ve got going on is a big teakettle that's on wheels.”

And this is just one of the trains here.

Another quarter-sized train runs on a parallel track, and next to that are full-sized rail cars — a boxcar, caboose and diesel switcher — decked out in colorful lights.

Inside, there are even more trains, albeit much smaller. Model engines run loops around tiny Christmas villages bustling with miniature townspeople.

These trains are part of a longstanding holiday tradition.

The train tradition

Around 1900, manufacturer Lionel released its first model train: The Electric Express.

“In the big cities, a lot of the department stores would set up their Christmas windows and many of them would feature a model train in some fashion,” Gabriel said.

Over time, the gadget made appearances on wishful Christmas lists, and when kids opened up gifts of trains on Christmas morning, they’d set up their brand new models around the tree.

The tradition took off, picking up steam when the popular story, The Polar Express, was published in 1985 and later adapted into a film.

Now, towns all over Ohio celebrate the holiday with scenic train rides.

  • In Nelsonville, the Santa Train takes passengers through the Hocking River Valley while Santa visits each child on board.
  • Storytellers on the Polar Express at the Dennison Depot reenact the well-known holiday tale to pajama-clad passengers.
  • The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad’s North Pole Adventure brings visitors on a journey to the North Pole.
  • And the Lebanon, Mason and Monroe Railroad in Warren County hosts a North Pole Express too, complete with visits from Santa and his elves.

Sharing Christmas memories

In Findlay, the magic of the North Pole Express is thanks to dozens of volunteers, like Gabriel, who are driven by a shared passion for locomotives.

“My grandfather got me involved with trains,” Gabriel said. “He had wind up trains. And whenever I went over to visit my grandfather, we would always get out the trains and play with them.”

That’s a common story among the volunteers: dads and grandpas passing on their love of the transportation technology.

Now, those volunteers are sharing their enthusiasm with today’s kids.

Onboard the North Pole Express, a whistle sounds and the train starts to pick up speed.

“We believe this gives our riders an opportunity to experience rail transportation, much like probably their grandparents or potentially even their parents did when they were younger,” Gabriel said.

So, this train ride isn’t just a trip to the North Pole — it’s a trip through time, a way to share love and Christmas memories across generations.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.