Just Believe

The pages of a beloved children’s book come to life on the Portland waterfront.

By Meadow Rue Merrill
Photographed by Douglas Merriam
On a frigid December Saturday on Portland’s eastern waterfront, children wearing pajamas under their coats clutch grown-up hands as they cautiously approach a rumbling locomotive. The train is trimmed with string lights, oil lamps blaze outside open car doors, and a swollen stream of steam curls upward before vanishing into a starry sky.

The passengers board the antique cars for a 15-minute ride to the North Pole — or, anyway, the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum’s version of it. Tonight, this train is The Polar Express, inspired by the popular children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg (and the 2004 hit movie it spawned) in which a mysterious train whisks a boy to Santa’s home, reviving his belief in magic.

The Polar Express runs Friday through Sunday, Nov. 27–Dec. 20, and on the three days before Christmas. Boarding is at the Ocean Gateway Visitor Center, 14 Thames St., Portland. Tickets are $28.50 per person for coach, $44.50 for first class (includes keepsake mug); children 2 and younger ride free. Tickets available through PortTix, 207-842-0800, porttix.com


The Polar Express is the museum’s biggest fundraiser, raising nearly $300,000 each year, about half its annual operating costs. Each December for the past seven years, more than 12,500 passengers have purchased tickets, which sell out fast, and some 150 volunteers, from high school students to train buffs, turn out to keep The Polar Express on schedule. An evening aboard the train is all about fun and the very grown-up delight of witnessing children’s wonder — my kids among them. Strains of the song “Believe,” from the movie soundtrack, drift overhead as we squeeze onto the padded seats of a toasty, turn-of-the-20th-century passenger car decorated with holiday boughs and snowflakes.

With a jerk, the train begins its slow journey north, following the 1.5-mile track. Children in footy pajamas and red Santa hats press noses against the cold windows to peer at a ferry, its deck illuminated with holiday lights, gliding across the darkened harbor. Fireworks fill the sky — a perk of riding on the same night as the city’s annual Parade of Lights. “More!” my 18-month-old son cries gleefully as he sits in his father’s arms, leaning toward the window.

Christmas Trains in Maine, Polar Express, Down East Magazine

A few minutes later, the train rolls to a stop outside the museum building to pick up an escort of eagerly waving elves and cooks in chef’s whites, carrying trays of steaming hot chocolate and baskets of cookies. A fussing baby is quickly soothed with a sweet treat as the train chugs forward with a shrill blast of its whistle.

While we sip and nibble, a cheery elf reads from The Polar Express, immersing us in the story as our train puffs through the darkness. “What do you want for Christmas?” asks an elf. My 4-year-old leans forward to whisper in her ear.

Then, the conductor, dressed in a black uniform and hat, appears. “Guys, we’re going to be at the North Pole really soon,” he says, punching tickets.

Wiping the fog from the window, we see the twinkling lights of a tiny village. Beneath a sign proclaiming “North Pole,” a big man in a red suit is waving. Soon, he is inside, squeezing down the narrow aisle and pressing silver bells into little hands. “It’s Santa!” my 4-year-old exclaims. “It’s really him!”


Christmas Trains in Maine

Dec. 4–6 & Dec 11–13
Christmas Prelude Trolley

Holiday revelers board a decorated vintage streetcar for an excursion through the wintry woods. Fridays, 1–3:30 p.m. Saturdays & Sundays, 10 a.m.– 4 p.m. $6. On Fridays at 5 p.m., the Golden Chariot, an ornate open car, takes passengers for a bracing nighttime spin, followed by cocktails in the visitor center. $25, reservations recommended. Seashore Trolley Museum, 195 Log Cabin Rd., Kennebunkport. 207-967-2712. trolleymuseum.org

Dec. 4–5
Jingle Bell Express

Maine Eastern Railroad’s Art Deco–era train whisks passengers from Rockland to the North Pole (Thomaston) and back. See website for departure schedule.
4 Union St., Rockland. 207-596-6725. maineeasternrailroad.com

Dec. 19
Victorian Christmas

Narrow-gauge steam and diesel trains from the early 20th century travel from the Wiscasset, Waterville, and Farmington Railway Museum to Alna Center, where passengers can visit Santa and ride either a horse-drawn wagon or sleigh (depending on snow). First train departs at 11 a.m. Last train departs at 4 p.m. Free. 97 Cross Rd., Alna. 207-882-4193. wwfry.org

Dec 12–13 & Dec 19–20
North Pole Express

After writing letters to Santa by a woodstove in the 103-year-old Freeport Station building, children board the North Pole Express for a visit with the jolly elf himself, followed by a story, hot chocolate, and cookies in the old Boothbay Town Hall. Trains depart 11 a.m., 11:45 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 1:15 p.m., and 2 p.m. $15 ($20 to ride first class in the plush Franklin & Megantic Coach No. 2). Boothbay Railway Village, 586 Wiscasset Rd., Boothbay. 207-633-4727. railwayvillage.org

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Meadow Rue Merrill

Meadow Rue Merrill is a Down East contributing editor.