When Michael Jackson wanted a train, Mt. Pleasant is where he got it.
It was near the height of the pop icon's celebrity, and the project was shrouded in near-total secrecy. For nearly a year, it consumed the lives of the company's local workforce with an effort they were barred from discussing with anyone.
And in some small ways, it changed Matthew Crull's life.
Mt. Pleasant News PHOTO
Matthew Crull shows some of the few photos taken of the train built for Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch by Shop Services, Inc. in Mt. Pleasant. Crull worked onn the engine as a contract worker for Shop Services — and flunked his first year in college as a result of the project’s grueling schedule.
In 1992, Jackson's company, MJJ Productions, contacted Shop Services, Inc., a company that built and serviced locomotives out of Midwest Central Railroad's facilities at McMillan Park, about building a narrow-gauge train for Jackson's Neverland Valley Ranch, which was then four years old.
The company purchased an old train that had run at the Six Flags amusement park and brought it to Mt. Pleasant, where it was modified to Jackson's specifications.
Crull, now president of the board of directors at Midwest Central Railroad, was then a freshman at Southeastern Community College and a contract worker for Shop Services.
"I ended up basically flunking out of my first year of college," he said. "We got to where I'd come in and go to work at about 3:30 in the afternoon, and get off at four, five in the morning. We were working basically around the clock to try and meet the contract deadline."
As one might expect, the train itself was like no other. The modifications included 24-karat gold leaf lettering, $45,000 stereo system and lighting all along the coaches. The boiler, built in Des Moines, included a first-of-its-kind computerized firing system that allows the engine to be run by a single person.
The engine named "Katherine," for Michael Jackson's mother.
Because of Jackson's popularity at the time, the whole project went forward in near-total secrecy. "We all had to sign forms with MJJ productions that we wouldn't even tell our families what it was that we were working on," said Crull. "At that point, I still lived at home with mom and dad, and I couldn't tell them what it was I was working on."
And to avoid the notice of passersby, the engine was only tested at night - usually between midnight and 3 a.m. It was only allowed outside in the daytime once, on the day it was loaded onto semis and shipped to Jackson's ranch.
"It was kind of funny, because it didn't take long for people in town to figure out that something weird was up," Crull recalled. "We started getting a crowd really fast when we were loading this thing on the semis."
Jackson seemed impressed. When Crull first met him, in late 1993, the singer was inspecting the hand-painted artwork added to the train, including animals painted inside the coal tender. (The train used a propane-fired engine.)
"Michael had climbed up on top of the tender, and lifted the tender lid, and looked down in there, and looked at me, and he said, "Looks like a tiny swimming pool!'" he recalled.
Crull arrived at the Neverland ranch just before Christmas in 1993, and spent three weeks operating the train.
"Of the Shop Services crew, I was the only one that was qualified to run a steam engine," Crull said. "They worked on them, but I was the only one that had experience with actually running them."
It was, he said, a unique experience. The ranch consisted of a cow pasture with an asphalt road leading to a valley, in which the buildings were built.
"The ranch was absolutely beautiful out there," Crull said. "It was named correctly, because it was just like dropping into Never Never Land."
The Victorian station built for the train looked very much like the station at Disneyland. And there were lights everywhere. "Every twig on every tree had an incandescent light bulb."
He was struck by the music, as well. "Everywhere you went, you heard music - but you never heard what you would expect; it was nothing but classical," Crull said. "It drove me crazy at first, but now I've got a real love for classical music; I've listened to it quite often ever since."
Crull was eventually offered a job at the ranch, running the engine; but he declined. "They only offered me $35,000 to start, and to me that was like living on poverty in California," he said.
Still, his time there left a lasting impression.
"In my opinion, he had a very good thing going there," said Crull, recalling in particular the visits organized for ailing children by the Make a Wish Foundation.
"There were several days that I was out there when they brought groups of Make a Wish kids out," he said. "They were pushing them around in hospital beds with IVs still hanging in them. All the rides were made to be extremely handicapped-accessible, so they could get those kids on those rides."
His views of Michael Jackson, who rode the train with him several times, were affected, too. Crull was working on the ranch when the first sexual abuse accusations were leveled against Jackson - charges Crull never believed.
"I've got a whole different opinion of him than a lot of people who've never met him, and just go off what the media says," he said.
Crull isn't sure what happened to the train after he left; but around 2000, Crull got a call at his home from MJJ Productions asking about the train. Apparently, he said, the boiler had given out.
He wasn't surprised. "They had the worst water in the world out there for a steam engine," he said. "Every day when I was operating it, about midday I would have to shut down for a little while and clean all the check valves and everything."
Shop Services had long since moved out, and Crull was asked to return to the ranch as a consultant to get the train running again. He agreed, and the company said they would make arrangements for him. But the plans never came together.
"I don't know exactly what transpired," he said.