A web exclusive story from Trains magazine

Yes, Virginia

(and Kentucky and Tennessee),

There is a Santa Claus

Story and photos by Ron Flanary

The CSX Transportation Santa Train made its 73rd run on Nov. 21, 2015. Earlier this year, CSX announced plans to close a portion of the train's route, leaving its future uncertain. This article is reproduced from the December 2005 issue of Trains magazine.

For decades, children and children-at-heart have been fascinated by the sight of Santa Claus riding a train instead of his sleigh full of toys. Even today, many regional carriers, shortlines, and tourist operations, even the Class Is, help ring in the Christmas season by taking Santa for a ride across the rails. But down in the Appalachians, along CSX’s former Clinchfield Railroad, the granddaddy of all Santa trains makes its remarkable 63rd run on Nov. 19.

Better than reindeer

Crews disguised Union Pacific Challenger No. 3985 as “Clinchfield 676” when it pulled the 1992 Santa train. The massive 4-6-6-4 ferries the trainset to Kingsport, Tenn., on Nov. 19, 1992.

Every year, thousands of residents and visitors gather along this remote mountain main line to see the Santa train, a joint operation of CSX and the Kingsport (Tenn.) Area Chamber of Commerce, and hopefully to catch a little Christmas cheer. The late-autumn sun hasn’t burned through the clouds or the drizzle, and the scent of winter is in the air, but weather’s not the issue, and dozens of cars line up near the tracks. Soon, children mount their parents’ shoulders, and expectant looks paint the faces of young and old.

Somewhere down CSX’s Kingsport Subdivision, the Santa Claus Special draws near. St. Nick is riding behind 9,000 horses today — that would be SD40-2 No. 8423 and CSX’s pair of F40PHs, Nos. 9992 and 9993 — instead of his nine reindeer, and cars from the railroad’s business fleet are subbing for the sleigh, but no worries: Those cars are full of presents.

Early days

The tradition began in 1942, when a group of Kingsport businessmen decided to do something special for its neighbors and patrons to the north in the Virginia coalfields. The Kingsport Merchants’ Bureau, predecessor to today’s chamber, solicited donations of candy from area stores. One of the volunteers dressed as Santa and joined fellow merchants as they tossed hard candy from the rear vestibule of Clinchfield’s regular southbound passenger local No. 38 on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving. At the time, the Clinchfield’s daily “varnish” run originated at the road’s northern terminal in Elkhorn City, Ky., in the 6 a.m. darkness, and arrived at Kingsport, 94 miles south, less than four hours later.

Come all, come early

Spectators line up on U.S. Route 23 beside the Norfolk Southern tracks in Speers Ferry, Va., to see the 1992 Santa Claus Special. Rainfall and gloomy skies are no match for the Santa train’s appeal: Crowds come out no matter what the weather is. This view is from a CSX overpass.

Scheduled passenger service ended in 1954, but the “Clinch” obligingly kept the Santa train running, by tacking office car 100 behind its only FP7, No. 200. “We were told to do a cost analysis on the train back in the early ’60s,” retired trainmaster Joe Fuller remembers, “but with some behind-the-scenes pressure from major shippers like Tennessee Eastman, it continued to operate every year.”

The world takes notice

When a new Clinchfield general manager, Tom Moore, arrived at Erwin (Tenn.) headquarters in 1968, he ordered shop forces to restore 1882-built 4-6-0 No. 1, which was rusting to oblivion behind the coach shed. The resurrected Ten-Wheeler pulled that year’s Santa Claus Special, with assistance from the freshly repainted FP7, and thrust this unique operation onto a higher level of public exposure. Mechanical problems and Moore’s departure forced the “One Spot’s” second retirement in 1979, but the Clinch kept running the Santa train behind diesel power.

Charles Kuralt, the late television journalist, covered the train in 1982, the last year it would be a true Clinchfield operation before successors absorbed the railroad. National coverage on CBS did more to bring attention to the Santa train than anything in its past. Those were the early days of CSX, and executives realized they had a winner for attracting positive press. A front-page story in The New York Times also generated money and donations from all over the country, a pattern that continues to this day. It was no longer necessary for the merchants of Kingsport to rely exclusively on local donations, as assistance from companies, celebrities, and generous individuals came pouring in.

Famous engine for a famous train: After General Manager Tom Moore famously ordered restoration of Clinchfield 4-6-0 No. 1, the 1882 Ten-Wheeler starred on the Santa train from 1968 to 1978. Wearing Family Lines lettering in 1976, the "One Spot" gets help from B unit diesels at Fort Blackmore, Va.

Many of those donations were in cash, and they enabled the Kingsport Chamber to establish a scholarship fund in 1989. Each year, a deserving student or two along the Santa train’s route receives a four-year, $5,000 scholarship. The program is one of the operation’s most meaningful legacies: To date, the chamber has awarded 20 scholarships totaling $100,000.

Big power, big excitement

A few days before today’s run, CSX had ferried the business-train cars from Jacksonville, Fla., to Erwin, where crews washed, watered, and fueled the equipment before sending it to Kingsport. There, volunteers and railroad personnel loaded 15 tons of candy, toys, and other gifts.

Now, 48 EMD cylinders are howling to keep the Santa train moving through the Kingsport Sub’s sharp curves and up its steep grades. Santa’s approaching his next stop, a patch of rock ballast instead of a rooftop with a chimney, against a backdrop of diesel engines and turbochargers playing a railroad version of sleigh bells. On the ground at trackside, though, the air hums with nervous anticipation: There’s a rumble in the distance, and this is no coal drag grinding its way home.

The Clinchfield was famous for coal. It made big profits and a legendary reputation lugging trainloads of bituminous across 277 miles of cuts, fills, and trestles, and through 55 tunnels to connections at Spartanburg, S.C. (“Clinchfield: Antithesis of Railroad Evolution,” Fall 2005 Classic Trains). That meant the Clinch was a railroad with heavy-duty construction and big-time power.

In 1988, a group of local fans (including the author) arranged with Steve Lee, head of Union Pacific’s steam program, to disguise UP Challenger No. 3985 as “Clinchfield 675.” The Clinch had acquired six identical, UP-designed 4-6-6-4s second-hand in 1947; the articulateds had operated on the Denver & Rio Grande Western during the late years of World War II, but the D&RGW had no use for the “UP” engines. With stick-on lettering, cardboard numerals for the number boards, and a wooden number plate, the 3985 briefly assumed the identity of a Clinchfield Challenger late one evening beside UP’s backshop in Cheyenne, Wyo. A year later, a semi-serious suggestion from David DeVault, then Eastman Chemical’s manager of rail services, to CSX’s Jerry Davis — a former Union Pacific man with close ties to UP chairman Drew Lewis — yielded an agreement to bring the 3985 to Tennessee for the Santa train’s 50th anniversary.

It was a logistical chore for CSX and UP to steam the big engine from Wyoming to Kingsport and back, but they pulled it off. The Challenger sharply overhung the Clinchfield’s 14-degree curves, and during the southbound ferry run, she sideswiped an empty hopper train in the siding at Boody, Va. CSX’s Erwin shop crew tackled the damage — a bent running board — and fashioned a replacement that night, enabling the engine to leave the next morning. At Kingsport, though, the 4-6-6-4’s huge pedestal tender couldn’t negotiate the tight radius of a seldom-used wye, requiring a 110-mile backup move to have the engine in place to pull the Santa train. Employing the 3985 was difficult, and it was expensive, but all agreed it was a landmark event that netted more positive press than ever before.

Santa stops here

Headlights glint off the railheads in the moments before the Santa train swings into view. The crowd becomes animated — children shout, point, and wiggle; even the adults step a little closer to the tracks — and CSX workers gently keep the eager spectators out of harm’s way. With a few quick toots of 8423’s horn and friendly waves from the head-end crew, the Santa Claus Special squeals to a stop, and the festivities begin.

Here comes Santa: Until the 1990's crowds gathered freely on or near the tracks to experience the Santa train, as seen from Seaboard System F7A No. 118 (ex-Clinchfield 200) at Waycross, Tenn., in 1989. These days, the train stops more often so spectators can stay safely to the side.

Crowds used to mingle freely on the tracks. Through the 1990s, Santa and his helpers tossed gifts from the rear of the moving train, which made only seven stops on its 7.5-hour journey. That practice forced spectators to gather on the right-of-way, and it became a point of concern, since it’s illegal to trespass on railroad property. “For 364 days we encourage vigorous enforcement of this statute, only to say that for one single day, on this particular route, it was apparently OK to trespass,” a spokeswoman says.

CSX approached the Kingsport Chamber in the mid-’90s and suggested making additional stops. Chamber leaders understood, and in 2001 the Santa train added five stops so all the candy and gifts could be distributed while the train was standing still. Since then, the number of stops has increased to 15.

Making the list

Santa Claus Special riders board at Kingsport for a four-hour ferry movement and media tour north to the train’s starting point at Shelby, Ky. After staying the night at a hotel in nearby Pikeville, they’re ready to depart with St. Nick promptly at 7:30 the next morning.

Lots of people get to ride the Santa train. Invited guests include carefully selected members of the media, volunteers, and shippers. CSX uses the train to reward and recognize employee achievement by including honorees and their families on the guest list. If you measure an event’s success by its star power, the Santa train delivers. Celebrity guests have become regulars in recent years, including country-music stars Joe Diffie in 2001 and Patty Loveless in 2002. In 2003, country singer and Grammy winner Rebecca Lynn Howard rode the train. A native of the Kentucky hills, she says, “I understand just how meaningful this Christmas tradition is.”

Everybody works on the Santa train, taking turns on the “chain gang” tossing goodies from the observation platform, or for the media, getting the story. After dispensing gifts and candy to thousands of children and their parents along the 110-mile route, the train arrives at Kingsport in time for Santa to ride a city fire truck in the annual Christmas parade.

Giving thanks

The train has stopped, but the noisy crowd drowns out the idling diesels and softly hissing air brakes. Santa and his helpers stand on the platform of observation car West Virginia, tossing candy, stuffed animals, wrapping paper, homemade mittens, and nearly anything else you can imagine toward the outstretched hands and upturned faces.

“This is our way of saying ‘thank you’ to the good people along an important CSX route,” a railroad media-relations official says.

Why this particular line? CSX notes it’s a matter of tradition. For certain, it’s an expensive operation for CSX, but local personnel are well practiced to pull it off each year without a hitch, so costs and disruption to normal operations are manageable. Although the Kingsport Sub is a tonnage-heavy route (“Men Against Mountains,” October 2001 Trains), corridor managers minimize traffic on the day the Santa train operates.

Hey, Santa!

Spectators line up on U.S. Route 23 beside the Norfolk Southern tracks in Speers Ferry, Va., to see the 1992 Santa Claus Special. Rainfall and gloomy skies are no match for the Santa train’s appeal: Crowds come out no matter what the weather is. This view is from a CSX overpass.

The tradition continues

There have been many changes over the years, such as the decision in the late 1970s to run the train the Saturday before Thanksgiving. CSX abolished the former Clinchfield terminus at Elkhorn City and combined it with the ex-Chesapeake & Ohio yard at Shelby, meaning the Santa train’s origination point had to move, too. The days when Ten-Wheelers and Challengers pulled the Santa Claus Special are long gone, and diesels from C40-8s to the former Amtrak F40s perform the honors.

But the more some things change, the more others stay the same. It’s not hard to find residents who have seen the Santa train every year since 1943. Then there’s Santa himself: Fewer than half a dozen men have donned the red suit and white whiskers since the train first ran. Of those, the late John Dudney performed as Santa for 38 years, while Frank Brogden wrapped up 19 years of service in 2002.

In an industry that hasn’t always warmed to its own legacy, it’s reassuring to see a unique operation nearing its 65th birthday. Thanks to the train’s success; support from CSX, the Kingsport Chamber, and countless donors; and the sheer spirit of the holiday season, Santa Claus continues his annual ride through the Appalachians.

RON FLANARY, of Big Stone Gap, Va., is a frequent contributor to Trains and Classic Trains. He rode his first Santa Claus Special in 1982, and has ridden several times since.