With a lurch and a wail of the whistle, the Polar Express began to move away from the Chattanooga Choo Choo station. A cheer arose as we departed for a magical journey to the "North Pole." At first the train went at a slow, steady pace, passing filling stations and convenience marts, but then it picked up speed as it glided through forests where only a few tiny lights glimmered between trees.
The children pondered their adventure into the dark night. Would they see Santa Claus and his reindeers? Would there be thousands of elves crowded in the square for the long anticipated event? As noted in the famous children's tale The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg:
"`They are gathering at the center of the city,' the conductor told us. `That is where Santa will give the first gift of Christmas.'
"`Who receives the first gift?' we all asked.
"The conductor answered, `He will choose one of you."'
On this night, just a short while ago, the conductor in a dark-blue uniform and hat walked through passenger cars and fielded questions from the excited children. A coal-fired steam engine and a diesel-electric engine pulled six sleek cordovan cars.
White lights outlined the 98-ton Engine No. 610 and its coal car. Tennessee Valley Railroad engineer Paul Brock and fireman Mike Brown guided the train toward its special destination. Passengers delighted in the candy canes handed out by six of Santa's helpers. A few families sang familiar carols, but mostly the passengers kept watch out the windows.
Dressed in pajamas with Dalmatian or teddy bear slippers, the children of Tessy and Greg Holsonback of Chickamauga, Ga., wondered about Santa. Gracie Holsonback, 2; Joshua Chisholm, 8; Emily Chisholm, 6; and nephew Tyler Smith, 4, wiggled and danced about in anticipation and repeatedly queried their parents.
They had heard the story of The Polar Express. Storyteller Midge Stewart recited the wondrous tale of a young boy who boarded a train just outside his home on a snowy Christmas Eve, joining other children clad in pajamas, housecoats and nightgowns.
"We drank hot cocoa as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars," writes Mr. Van Allsburg.
We, too, drank hot chocolate or hot cider and munched on sugar cookies, served by two stewards outfitted in black pants, white shirts, bib aprons and chef hats. "Outside, the lights of towns and villages flickered in the distance as the Polar Express raced northward," describes Mr. Van Allsburg.
Suddenly our destination appeared in the dark. The red-brick Grand Junction Station was lighted in white along the rooflines. Candles cast halos in windows, and a trio of reindeer figures and several evergreen trees were illuminated in clearings.
In the classic storybook, Santa selected the narrator from the group of children and asked, "Now, what would you like for Christmas?" The boy desired "one silver bell from Santa's sleigh." An elf cut a bell from a reindeer's harness and tossed it to Santa. "He stood, holding the bell high above him, and called out, 'The first gift of Christmas!"' When our train stopped, children sat quietly for a long, anxious moment.
Then suddenly a door flew open, and their gleeful shouts of "Santa!" rang throughout the car. There stood the jolly old elf, his plump figure filling the doorway as he erupted in laughter. The white-bearded, bespectacled Santa Claus wished everyone a merry Christmas as he wandered through the aisles and presented each of the 210 passengers with a silver bell.
Children gave him hugs and recited wish lists. Blond, blue-eyed Ashley Boston, 4, accompanied by her father, Jason Boston, mentioned her wish for clothes for her favorite doll. She romped down the aisles in concert with Ashford Oliver, 3, and brother Hunter Oliver, 6, of Pinehurst, N.C., who flew in for the nighttime ride as guests of their grandparents, Sam and Linda Dark of Beaufort, N.C.
Janet McCutchen snapped pictures of Santa and her daughter-in-law, Shelly Misenheimer, and grandchildren, Callie, 6 months, and Hannah, 3.
With a loud blast from its whistle, the Polar Express left Grand Junction and once again sped through the black night. Children bounced on the gray upholstered seats, filling the passenger car to overflowing with the sound of jingling silver bells and giggles. Santa's elves began singing a few carols. "Will you be tucking us in bed tonight?" one little girl asked an elf.
A trio of boys paraded back and forth between their seats and an observation doorway. They peered into the darkness, heard the chug, chug, chug of the engine and caught the acrid smell of smoke in the fresh air.
"This is fun, Mom," one lad said. He gleefully waved at cars stopped at railroad crossings.
And soon, the journey came to an end. Children scrambled to find misplaced silver bells before they departed the train and faced the cold winds blowing across the rails of Chattanooga Choo Choo station.
For the second year, the Tennessee Valley Railroad is running Polar Express excursions. The Polar Express train makes a two-hour trip around Chattanooga, with Santa boarding the train at the stop at Grand Junction Station, where the Tennessee Valley Railroad has its headquarters. The train departs and returns to Terminal Station at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Holiday Inn.
"Tickets sold quickly for the 13 trips," said Steven F. Freer, marketing coordinator. The organization also runs trains to scenic destinations in April, May, June, July, September, October and November.
Christmas specials run during December. A diesel-powered train goes to Lee & Gordon's Mill, Chickamauga, Ga., an antebellum grist mill, for a tour and dinner buffet. "The mill has been meticulously restored. Most of the machinery works just like it did," says Robert M. Soule, president of Tennessee Valley Railroad. Excursion hours are 3:30-9 p.m. Tickets for train ride and dinner are $59.
For information, call (423) 894-8028 or check the Web site www.tvrail.com.