When the Polar Express screeched to a stop at the Ocean Gateway in Portland, children in their pajamas jumped out of the train cars.

Then came Haley Russeau, 26, and Meghan Clark, 25, wearing red, onesie pajamas decorated with reindeer faces.

The sisters and other family members had taken the Polar Express at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum with their niece and nephew. The little ones loved the ride on the historic passenger train, they said, but so did the adults.

“I think we had more fun,” Clark said.

The family rode one of the last trains of the year at the Narrow Gauge Railroad, which closed its holiday season this weekend with record ridership. Executive Director Donnie Carroll said every Polar Express train was sold out this year, bumping the total number of visitors above 43,000 for 2017.

That success could be helpful in the year to come, when the nonprofit will launch a capital campaign to build a new location on Route 100 in Gray. Last year, the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad lost out on a key $500,000 grant, delaying its move to 2021, three years later than originally planned.

“I’m still the eternal optimist,” Carroll said. “I think we’ve got some good momentum going forward to the new year, and we just need to build upon that.”

The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad runs a historic passenger train on 1.5 miles of track on Portland’s eastern waterfront from May to October, as well as the popular Polar Express ride around Christmastime.

The nonprofit has access to the track until at least 2023. But the lease for the museum only lasts to March, with the option to extend afterward on a monthly basis. That 7,500-square-foot building is part of the Portland Co. complex on Fore Street, which the owners hope to redevelop into a new marina and mixed-use buildings.

Still, Carroll said the trains will keep running, no matter where the museum space is.

“I think Polar Express next year will be here and probably even bigger, if that’s possible,” Carroll said.

Last year, the town of Gray considered giving nearly $500,000 in seed money to the railroad. The measure lost by a margin of nearly 700 votes – 2,757 against and 2,078 in favor. People who opposed the project generally supported the railroad’s move but didn’t want to give town money to a private cause. Carroll said he has been working to reassure potential donors that the museum is still growing and planning on a move to Gray.

“It was definitely a setback, there’s no question about that,” Carroll said.

So the museum hired a consultant firm to help plot out a capital campaign, which will launch next year. The original plan was to spend between $4 million and $6 million for a 13,500-square-foot museum. Now, the size of the museum is dependent on the success of the campaign.

So far, the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad has spent roughly $100,000 on design work, architect fees, land-use planning, and wetland mapping and survey work. It has nearly $130,000 remaining to spend on a down payment on the land, additional survey work, the capital campaign consultant, and the beginning of the permitting process. A purchase-and-sales agreement will be signed by the end of the year, Carroll said.

“I refuse to step backward,” Carroll said.

This year’s Polar Express season gave him hope for the future, he said.

“We’re maxed out pretty much for almost every train,” he said a few days before the end of the season.

Shawn and Kim Hall of Lyman know from experience. Last year, the trains sold out before they could buy tickets for their sons, 5-year-old Liam and 3-year-old David.

But on Friday afternoon, the Halls were all ready for the Polar Express in their matching blue plaid pajama pants.

“We bought our tickets right after Thanksgiving,” Shawn Hall said. “They’re huge train fans.”


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