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Holiday Train entertains in new Portage venue

December 10, 2018

“Choo-choos?”

The question, in a tiny voice, emanated from a toddler who could, if the grown-ups had let him, crawl under the barricades that Portage public works employees had put in place for Saturday’s arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railroad Holiday Train.

Yes, there were choo-choos visible from a CP Rail parking lot off Averbeck Street, north of the tracks – numerous graffiti-covered boxcars and, before long, the decorated train with a wreath on its engine and a fold-down stage on one of its cars.

The hundreds of people who gathered for the annual Portage appearance of the Holiday Train had a new place to watch, and dance to, the performances of singer Willy Porter and the Canadian rock band The Trews.

Jessica Dillman of Oxford said she didn’t know, until someone told her on Saturday morning, that the Holiday Train viewing venue had been changed, from the Amtrak depot area south of the tracks to a parking lot off Averbeck Street north of the tracks.

“I really like it,” Dillman said of the new site. “It’s roomier. It’s safer. People can park in the area, and find better locations for taking pictures.”

Canadian Pacific Railroad spokesman Andy Cummings said the change in location is likely to be permanent.

“If this year’s event at the location is successful, CP intends to continue at the new location in future years,” he wrote in an email.

For attendees who didn’t get the news about the change of venue on social media or in the Daily Register, the Columbia County Highway Department had placed a lighted sign on New Pinery Road at West Albert Street, whose flashing message alternated between “Holiday Train” and “Turn right.”

Diane Rodd of West Bend said she learned about the location change on the CP Rail Holiday Train website, while she was making plans for a surprise excursion for six of her seven grandchildren, on the family’s traditional “grandbaby sleepover.”

Before the grandchildren, ranging in age from 5 to 14, experienced their first Holiday Train, they experienced another vital aspect of it. They went shopping for non-perishable foods to donate to the Portage Food Pantry and the pantry at the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Cummings, who was on the train, said the Holiday Train has donated more than $14 million to food pantries in the United States and Canada in its 20 years of riding the rails in late November and early December.

While the two Portage food pantries share the collected food donations, CP Rail writes a giant-size check to one of them each year; this year, St. Vincent de Paul got the $4,500 check, and the cash donations from train spectators went to the Portage Food Pantry.

The celebration’s centerpiece, however, was the half-hour concert offered by Porter – who described himself as being “from the wilds of Wisconsin” – and The Trews.

Every song in their repertoire, including “The Little Drummer Boy” had a rock beat suitable for dancing. And there was plenty of room for dancing, in the parking lot and on a small rise above it, which afforded a panoramic view of the Holiday Train.

In anticipation of the extra space, Mitchell Klingbeil, 8, of Westfield, brought a football to toss before the train’s arrival.

“He kept throwing it into the burrs,” said his stepmom, Trina Seger.

Seger said she thought the venue was “OK, but a little muddy.”

There were patches of snow and slush, and a fairly good-sized mud puddle, an attractive nuisance for the dogs in the audience, and some for little kids.

Portage Mayor Rick Dodd, addressing the crowd from the boxcar stage, said he liked the new location for its spaciousness.

Teema Carpenter of the town of Dekorra had never been to a Holiday Train visit before, and neither had her son, 11-month-old Ryder.

“This is awesome,” she said. “I was just thinking, ‘Ryder, after this you get to play in the snow and mud.’ ”