Watching “The Polar Express” in Caboose #1 at the Narrow Gauge Rail Museum

The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum in Nevada County has long been a special place for our family, representing local history, a “sense of place” and the selfless volunteerism that occurs in our community. The museum’s ebullient and energetic executive director Madelyn Helling has become a dear friend — for her work at the Railroad Museum and the  County Library that honors her legacy.

For years, we’ve enjoyed visiting the museum with our son and his friends as he was growing up, including the imaginative annual Christmas celebration with Santa Claus, rail-bus rides, refreshments and cookies, and a silent auction in December. Along with Victorian Christmas, Cornish Christmas, and making Latkes for Hanukkah at Tess’ Kitchen Store — a passion of owner Steve Rosenthal — “Christmas at the Railroad Museum” is one of our favorite local holiday traditions.

When my parents died in 2007, in their obituary in The Union and San Francisco Chronicle, we asked that donations be made to “their grandson’s” (AKA, our son’s) favorite charity — the Railroad Museum — to help build a real “Little Engine that Could.” That “little engine” (known as Engine 13) was built in 2007-2009, thanks to community-wide contributions.

The 15-foot long locomotive required nearly 10,000 volunteer hours and $35,000 in materials to complete. Each year, we donate a weekend at our cabin at Lake Tahoe to the Museum for the silent auction, and we regularly promote the Museum’s annual Christmas Party in our regional magazine. It draws visitors from all over, not just locals.

This year our relationship with the Railroad Museum came full circle. As the sophomore class president at Ghidotti Early College High School, our son decided to combine some of his favorite childhood memories as a class outing: A showing of the movie “The Polar Express” in Caboose #1, a replica of a 1937 caboose that is located in the rail yard of the Museum.

The caboose is available for rental, and this week about 20 of the students sat together on the wooden benches inside the caboose and watched “The Polar Express.” (The overflow seating was on folding chairs).

We created colorful tickets like the ones in the movie, with jingle bells attached. We also served coffee and hot chocolate at intermission, thanks to catering from Amy and Chamba Cooke and the staff at Summer Thyme’s Bakery & Deli. Summer Thyme’s General Manager Jamal Walker filled the order on short notice.

The holder of the winning ticket, which read “Believe,” won a prize — a fleece bathrobe like the one worn by the young hero in the movie — in this case, from the Hospice of the Foothills thrift store.

All the teenagers enjoyed the “journey.” They also toured the museum. Thanks to curator Grover Cleveland, Madelyn and the staff for organizing the outing. It was a memorable local experience for all of them, and a reminder of the “sense of place” that comes with living in our community.

(Photo: Railroad Museum)

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years, and he was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News for eight years, among other positions. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing, swimming, and trout fishing in the Sierra.

4 thoughts on “Watching “The Polar Express” in Caboose #1 at the Narrow Gauge Rail Museum”

    1. I didn’t know Sac had a P.E.! The online photos of the coaches are all vintage charm. The dining car is super cute and nostalgic. I rode on trains like this as a kid. Days gone by, but now they can be re-lived by a new generation and possibly re-envisioned for the future.

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