Friday, November 20, 2015

Holidays on Rails

Grand Rapidian Chris Van Allsburg wrote The Polar Express in 1985, inspired by childhood memories of the holidays in Grand Rapids.

Back then,  Herpolsheimer's and Wurzburg's department stores were basically the Macy's and Gimbels of GR.

"When you went downtown to do your Christmas shopping, you always had to make a choice to go to Wurzburg's or Herpolsheimer's," Van Allsburg remembers.

Today, the Grand Rapids Art Museum is located on the former site of Wurzburg's. And the GR police department sits on the somewhat iconic corner of Monroe Center and Division, where Herpolsheimer's once was.

Before shopping malls, and certainly before the internet, shopping was a different experience, and department stores reigned. And for the kids, visiting the shopping at Christmas meant a visit to Santa Claus.
During the Christmas shopping season, Herpolsheimer's operated the "Santa Express"—a miniature train on a monorail suspended from the ceiling in the basement. While it looks cheesy and somewhat dangerous to me now, back then I'm sure it felt futuristic, like something straight out of the World's Fair.
The train in The Polar Express was based on a 482 Baldwin Steam train. When they made the movie, the train they referenced was the Pere Marquette, which is the rail line between Grand Rapids and Chicago. And the train they studied.... #1225 of course.

I myself, have very early holiday memories of The Polar Express, specifically because of the Breton Village Mall, where they always had an elaborate train set up, and the story was illustrated annually around Santa's Village.

In a season where tradition reigns, Grand Rapids looks a little different than it did when Van Allsburg was growing up. People head to the suburbs (or their desktop) to shop. But his story will continue to delight for as long as children have the ability to believe.


  1. Chris Van Allsburg was just at Schuler Books! I have some fond memories of Breton Village too.

    1. Schuler's! — another great Grand Rapids tradition! Sorry to have missed that!