Idea to reality: how the Northern Star made its way to Midland
Editor’s Note: When embarking on a new project, sometimes there are unexpected surprises. For the Northern Star trackless train, that surprise came in the form of an engine failure after just one week on the job. While the train itself is out of commission this holiday season, it will be back in 2015 and better than ever. In the meantime, families can still enjoy a ride in the train cars, which are being towed via a generous volunteer's truck.
By Ben Tierney
In 1987, Midland resident Tom Valent saw an opportunity that eventually led to a national spotlight on his small community each holiday season.
At the time, he was a civil engineer at Midland-based Gerace Construction Company, had a penchant for dressing in a certain red and white garb, carried an infectious laugh and, according to his friends and family, was a certified Christmas fanatic. The pieces were in place for the construction of a permanent Santa House in downtown Midland.
27 years later, Valent is the CEO of Gerace, Dean of the prestigious Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School and, by all accounts, still as fanatical about the Christmas season as ever. Midland’s Santa House, renovated in 2012, welcomes thousands of people each year, offering free-of-charge visits with Santa throughout the holiday season. Each child leaves with a gift and a piece of peppermint taffy. Nearly 7,000 of each are ordered annually by the Midland Area Community Foundation (MACF), who organizes the project.
In the past several years, the house and the accompanying Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School have been featured on Good Morning America, 20/20, TIME, the New York Times and several other national news outlets.
Valent is quick to deflect credit, but it’s no secret that without his efforts there would not be the Santa House that exists today. The majority of toys and items on display came from his personal collection, with the exception of an impressive toy train collection donated in 2010 by Valent’s friend and fellow Midland resident Bill Church.
According to Church, the train collection was appraised at over $100,000. “We inherited this massive train set from my father after he passed away. He was a hoarder with those train sets, buying a new piece all the time. After he passed we moved it all to the Santa House; I couldn’t think of a better way for it to go.”
Over nearly three decades, Valent has spent countless hours fixing and fine-tuning the hundreds of intricate puppets and toys, whirring gizmos and flashing lights that make the Santa House so unique. Several years ago, he went so far as to install a snow machine. The electronic system features a remote near Santa’s chair that triggers white foam to blow from the ceiling, eliciting shrieks of delight from children (and often adults) standing nearby.
Everything is seemingly designed with one goal in mind: to bring smiles to the faces of anyone who steps inside.
Shortly after helping Valent install his donated train set in the Santa house, Church approached his friend with an even bigger idea: he wanted to bring the Polar Express to Midland.
They discussed the idea together in 2010. Church would send YouTube videos and photos of potential trains to Valent, and they went over the logistics of building cars that could comfortably transport a large group.
“There was this massive train I was eyeing; I tried to convince Tom we had to have it,” said Church. “Unfortunately the price tag was nearly a million dollars, so he brought me back to reality a bit.”
Despite their efforts, instead of visions of the bright red paint they desired for the front engine, they saw only red tape at first. There were liability issues, cost concerns, and where do you store a 12,000 pound locomotive?
The red tape slowly stripped away after Valent’s wife, Holly, encouraged him to pursue the project further in 2012. Valent approached possible funders and stepped up his search efforts for the right model.
Funding was eventually secured from local family foundations and the Midland Area Community Foundation. MACF was the initial owner, providing organizational expertise and hashing out the logistics of transporting forty people up and down Main Street in a 45ft long train. They also worked to secure a permanent owner, coming to local organization Education and Training Connection (ETC), who agreed to take on the project.
Valent and Church found their train in the summer of 2013. The machine is trackless, meaning it trades the traditional steel wheels intended for an actual train track with rubber tires you can use to steer the machine. Trackless trains come in many shapes and sizes, replicating several models from the 1800’s to more modern styles.
When purchased, the train looked nothing like how one would expect the Polar Express to appear. Valent and Church stripped the machine, purchased from a company in Ohio, down to its bare components. A coat of gold, red and silver paint followed, instantly transforming the rustic black and tans of the original into something substantially more festive in appearance.
“When the first grainy photos of potential trains came in, we had a hard time envisioning the end product,” admitted Sharon Mortensen, President & CEO of the community foundation. “Tom turned a train that looked like it belonged in a Wild West movie set into a beautiful, fun, Christmas-themed locomotive.”
“Bill and I found a train of the right size and scale we were hoping for,” said Valent. “Then we went about adding paint, a whistle, steam, lights, and two coach cars. Those cars are converted farm wagons we purchased from a company in Canada.”
ETC of Midland owns and operates the Northern Star (the “Polar Express” name was already taken), a natural fit with their strong network of drivers, many of whom lined up to volunteer their time as a certified Northern Star engineer.
The top speed is somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 to 15 miles per hour, claims Valent. “The same as the 1850 locomotive it was modeled after,” he adds with a smile.
For Midland area families, this translates to another free family outing, something MACF strongly supports.
“The community foundation exists because of donations from community members, so we support projects that benefit all residents,” said Mortensen. “The Northern Star is another fun, free, family-oriented activity that everyone can enjoy this holiday season.”
In the future, ETC has plans to make the train available for group rentals and feature it at local events such as Riverdays. The train is currently scheduled to run from the Midland County Courthouse to Dow Diamond and back each day from December 3rd to December 23rd. A full list of times and other details can be found at the community foundation website.