Polar Express is ready to roll to the North Pole

Polar Express is ready to roll to the North Pole
Teri Stein

Dan Pluta, a former Ohio resident now from Cumberland, Maryland, cleans a slack adjuster motor, which is part of the air brake system on one of the Polar Express train cars.


After a year off, the Polar Express at the Dennison Depot is ready to take 20 trips to the North Pole spread out over the first two weekends of December. The trip is based on the book, “The Polar Express,” by Chris Van Allsburg, and the Dennison Depot tours are a licensed Warner Bros. production and the only Polar Express train ride available in Ohio.

After canceling the 2020 trips due to COVID-19, the depot was negatively affected.

“That is our number-one fundraiser every year,” Jacob Masters said. “We have other events, but that’s our biggest money maker and it was devastating to us.”

Ticket holders were given the option to donate their tickets, get a refund or carry over their tickets to 2021.

“We had a decent amount of people who carried their tickets over, so that helped a lot,” Masters said.

This year tickets are nearly sold out. Anyone still wanting to take the train ride needs to act fast. Masters recommended calling the depot for assistance, although the tickets also are available on Eventbrite.

With COVID-19 still a concern, the depot will take extra precautions for this year’s trip.

“Between trips, the cars will be sprayed with a solution. All the seats and all the surfaces will be sanitized between every trip so people can feel comfortable coming,” Masters said.

As a transportation site, they are required to follow certain rules that other public transportation, like airlines, must follow. Everyone is required to wear a mask over their nose and mouth on the grounds, in the depot and on the train. Visitors will be able to remove their masks when the hot chocolate and cookies are served, but then they need to put them back on for the rest of the trip.

The depot can always use more volunteers to work on the trains in a variety of positions like car host, storytelling or hot chocolate patrol or at the depot in the office or gift shop. Anyone volunteering on the train is required to take a brief one-hour safety training prior to starting.

Putting on the Polar Express is a year-round project.

“There are so many pieces and parts to this event. We work with the Genesee and Wyoming railroad, and they’re a wonderful partner. We work with our railroad mechanic, who is our certified Amtrak mechanic. We work with all our volunteers and elves,” Masters said, adding they also work with schools and area businesses for the supplies they need and the villages of Dennison, Uhrichsville and Newcomerstown.

It’s all worth it for the joy it brings visitors and volunteers alike. Masters is a storyteller for the event and a witness to all the action including the hot chocolate dance during a train ride.

“One of my favorite things about this event is when the big guy (Santa) comes into the car and the kids see him for the first time. There’s just this moment that is pretty breathtaking honestly,” Masters said.

Early in the trip, before Santa arrives on the train, they do a broken bell scene.

“People can’t hear it because they don’t believe because that’s what the story is all about,” Masters said. “When we get to the end of the trip, we have a bell that works, and we play it, and they can hear it. It’s just like that moment after they’ve seen Santa Claus. After they’ve read the story and we’ve done this trip to the North Pole and now they believe again, you can hear the bell. It’s a very magical moment. There’s lots of things, but that’s the heart of it, and that’s for volunteers and passengers both.”

In addition to the trip itself, there will be a vendor space at the Streetside Center — former Mason Lodge across the street from the depot — with many products available for sale, and the Dennison Yard is coordinating the snack bar this year.

“We’re very grateful that they’re doing that,” Masters said.

Short on space, the depot purchased the Streetside Center this year.

“This is going to be used as an event space. We’re very space constrained at the depot. It’s a beautiful building but not very big. We have no where to expand,” Masters said. “One of the things we’ve always talked about is when we have a meeting, we have to tear down the theater all the time, and now we don’t have to do that because we have this space.”

The space can be rented, and Masters is pleased the building will host its first wedding and reception in January 2022.

“It’s going to be a money maker for us, and when we do events that require a space, for example, like the Queen’s Tea, volunteer dinner or the Pullman Car open house, we don’t have to rent a space out and we don’t have to go anywhere else. That’s really the biggest thing,” Masters said.

Masters also thinks the new Light Up Dennison project is a wonderful idea that will only add to the experience of visitors coming to the depot and those in the community.

“It’s fantastic. I’m sure it will help us,” Masters said.

When you pull into Dennison and you’re driving down Second Street, all the light poles are wrapped with white and red like candy canes. Then when you turn onto Grant Street or Center Street, there are lights everywhere.

“It is beautiful. It looks like you’re pulling into a Christmas town. No offense to any other town in the United States, but this is the Christmas Town,” Masters said.

If you’re not taking a trip to the North Pole this year, the depot is still a great place to visit for train-related gifts including railroad and Polar Express memorabilia, toy trains, and Pullman train car items.

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