Experiencing Northern Michigan: Fall Color Countryside Tour via Vintage Locomotive

Fall colors in Northern Michigan were near their peak this past weekend, with the season’s most vivid shades of gold, red, green, and orange harmonizing throughout our region’s landscapes, putting on a vibrant show. Given the changing foliage and gorgeous scenery Up North, autumn offers the perfect opportunity to take advantage of unique adventures—like a train ride via vintage locomotive through Cadillac’s picturesque countryside on a rainy afternoon.

Before last Saturday, I’d never been on a train, though I’d always wanted to go, partly due to the connection trains have with writers and literature (and my mind’s fantasy of what good writing time a train ride would be). There’s also that feeling people get about trains, a nostalgic rush, that I’ve been here before feeling, even if you haven’t been there before. I felt it, too, as I listened to the whistles in the distance and walked toward the will call line to pick up my coach ticket in Downtown Cadillac.

The weather made the experience all the more magical. Huddled against a wistful backdrop of days gone by, 380 passengers waited, umbrellas out and hoods up, ready for a blast from the past. It almost felt surreal boarding a locomotive from 1954 (the same year 9&10 News first went on the air), walking along the gangway from packed car to packed car before finding an empty pair of seats upholstered with theater-style plush red cushions. Some seats were arranged in sets of pairs facing each other so groups of four could talk, laugh, and reminisce along the scenic ride. 

The fall color tour train ride through Cadillac’s countryside on October 14, 2017, was made possible through a partnership between the Steam Railroading Institute and the Cadillac Area Visitors Bureau. The locomotive departed the City Park smoothly at 2pm and headed 30 miles south to McBain along the Great Lakes Central Railroad line of Michigan’s Railroad System. With a view of Lake Cadillac out the window, I felt like I was aboard the Hogwarts Express. 

Raindrops danced down the train windows, blurring the colorful trees outside like a still-wet oil painting of autumn. Compartments inside were outfitted with Halloween decorations, fall leaves, and bright orange lights. One train car had been converted into a gift shop, selling everything from maps, posters, and magnets to kids’ toys and railroad memorabilia, while another sold concessions at retro prices ($1 coffee and $1 muffins!). Albeit a little bumpy, the hour-long ride was surprisingly comfortable, warm, even jolly.

Tickets for the Cadillac Countryside Tour were $20/coach or $40/caboose (with a $3 online convenience charge)—a worthwhile investment for such a unique trip. The Steam Railroading Institute 100% accomplished their goal of providing a “wonderful train excursion experience” this year. The group is passionate about “teaching a new generation about steam era technology through the best possible exhibit—a living, breathing piece of history that comes to life in front of your very eyes!” Anyone can become a member of the Steam Railroading Institute, which accepts donations to the help keep Pere Marquette 1225 alive.

Volunteers conducted this past weekend’s fall color excursion. All the volunteers I met were friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable—not to mention official, as the train’s engineers and assistants were dressed in vintage uniforms (making the experience even more magical and nostalgic). Everyone was so welcoming, comforting, and genuinely enthusiastic about the fun work they do, and there was even a surprise musical performance that got passengers laughing.

On the about section of the Steam Railroading Institute’s Facebook page is an interesting timeline detailing the most significant moments of the organization’s history, from when the MSU Railroad Club was founded in 1969 (a Michigan State student took interest in the locomotive and used an open letter in The State News to rally other rail history buffs to form the club “with the ambitious goal of restoring 1225 and using it to power excursion trains that would bring passengers to football games”) all the way to present day.

Train travel became widely popular during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, when investing in building railroads to connect cities and towns efficiently for logging, trade, and commuting purposes grew. Places like Cadillac (then Clam Lake) developed as the lumber and railroad industries thrived. In the 1870s, George Mitchell, who would become Cadillac’s first mayor and city founder, was a local banker and railroad entrepreneur who encouraged other entrepreneurs to start their own businesses in town. The Shay Locomotive, a small yet powerful lumber train, was invented in 1879 and patented in 1881 by local logger Ephraim Shay and is now on display as a tourist attraction in the Cadillac City Park.

Northern Michigan’s history and how the region grew are intrinsically entwined with the rich history of the railroad and the inspiring stories of local leaders who took risks and initiative to progress their communities. I would love if trains made a comeback Up North as a functional form of daily transportation. Around here, it’s miles and miles of stunning countryside, trees as countless as stars in the night sky. By rail is my new favorite way to travel.

Cadillac to McBain and back again on a train in the rain—this memorable excursion made for the perfect autumnal adventure and was a fun way to explore Michigan’s history. I loved my first-ever train ride experience, everything about it, and can’t wait to go again. Whether you’re a local or just visiting the area, I highly recommend touring the gorgeous scenery surrounding Northern Michigan’s countryside by way of vintage locomotive next fall.

Categories: Experiencing Northern Michigan

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