Yes, it’s only a a 110-mile trek. One way. If you ride the train in both directions — from Kingport to Shelby, Ky., and back it’s 220 miles. And that’s what we did the first nine times I rode the train. Since 2007, guests and volunteers who ride the train take buses to Kentucky on Friday evening and only ride the train back to Kingsport the next day. So that’s 1,980 miles for the first nine years and another 1,210 these last 11 years.
It is an embarrassment of riches to have ridden the train 20 years, I know. I am often vague when asked how many times I’ve gotten to ride. I consider myself extraordinarily blessed. Riding the train is one of the most joyous things I’ve ever experienced. Each time is no less heartwarming. Yes, it can be heartbreaking, too. I have experienced both emotions, sometimes in short order, each and every time I’ve ridden with Santa.
And don’t misunderstand. It isn’t a cakewalk. It’s basically a 24- to 30-hour workday — minus what usually is about a four-hour nap overnight Friday — for a journalist covering the event. You see, every time I’ve been on the Santa Train was as a working reporter for the Kingsport Times-News. My first trip was unexpected and last minute, due to the illness of a coworker who was supposed to ride that year.
Back then, the train left downtown Kingsport around 1 p.m. for the slow, leisurely trip north. On the way up, the train did not have top priority on the tracks, so we’d have to pull into a siding and stop to let southbound, revenue-generating freight trains pass. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to how I got that first ride.
I was at home that Friday morning getting ready to go into the Times-News for a day at my desk. Or so I thought. The phone rang before I got out the door. It was my boss, the city editor, Stephanie McClellan. She told me to quickly pack an overnight bag, come to the office to pick up a check for expenses (which I’d have to go cash at the bank), and make sure I was at the old depot on Main Street no later than noon. My assignment: cover the Santa Train. I’ve covered it every year since.
Here are but a few standout memories of that first trip:
What may surprise many is this: Even though I grew up in Kingsport (I will be 55 next week) and my family routinely went to the Kingsport Christmas Parade each year, which Santa was in after arriving in town on “his” train, in 1998 I was a single guy in his mid-30s and I had no clue exactly what the Santa Train was or why it seemed urgent that I go on an overnight trip to cover it. But I didn’t ask questions and did as I was told. But I was running late and I wanted to take my own camera and didn’t have any film (yes, young folk, this is back when cameras required film). So I called my parents and asked if they had any rolls of film handy and could they meet me at the old depot. They said sure. But they were late, too. I went on and boarded the train and was seated in a dining car waiting for departure. Frank Brogden had gotten word I was new to covering the train and he’d joined me at my table to give me some tips on coverage. I heard someone somewhere say my name ... and then I heard my mother say, “Oh, yes, that’s him there.” She hurried to the table and I introduced Mr. Brogden. And then it happened. She opened her purse and shook out several packages of 35 mm film. Green boxes. Fuji boxes. Frank Brogden sighed. I knew immediately why. Frank, of course, would have preferred mother be a loyal Kodak customer. I had to explain all that to her later, because she said she had to dash as fast as her legs would carry her — she’d been warned to be back off the train before it left or she’d be spending the night in Kentucky. Mother’s glimpse of inside the train — she’d had to board on the end and make her way through probably a dozen or so cars to find me, and she had to exit the same way — intrigued her and gave her a taste for more.
On the ride up back then, reporters spent most of the trip getting key interviews out of the way because the people you’d want quotes from — Santa, Ed Moore with Food City, a Kingsport Chamber official, someone with CSX, the woman known as “the Angel of the Santa Train” — they’d all be working nonstop on Saturday. And you would be, too, if you planned to get off the train and interview folks in the crowd. I did a few interviews,but not all that I should have. I actually spent much of the afternoon in a window-booth in a baggage car, by myself, reading, probably a Patricia Cornwell book. I regretted it the next day when I simply could not get quotes from some key people. I never repeated that mistake.
We typically didn’t get to the hotels in Pikeville, Ky., until 8:30 or 9 p.m. or even later. By the time you settled into your room it might be 11 p.m. And you needed to be in the lobby the next morning, packed and ready to go, by 4 a.m. or 4:30 a.m. The nicest hotel in Pikeville back then was a 1970s-era place complete with gold-veined, mirror-tiled walls, cork board trim, and what many still swear was shag carpeting in some of its rooms. I wasn’t lucky enough to secure a room there for several years and instead had to stay at an auxiliary motel down the road. Its chief feature was a very loud honky-tonk out back.
Back then, Santa and his helpers tossed gifts along the entire route, anywhere children were spotted along the railroad tracks. A lookout on the front of the train would radio to the back to look for X number of people coming up on this or that side of the train. And everyone on the train had a couple or three minutes to help Santa toss items. I anxiously awaited my turn. I reported for duty. And just as I stepped out the door onto the rear platform with Santa, the train entered a tunnel. And not just any tunnel. The biggest tunnel on the route, which is perhaps still the longest in the entire CSX system. The Sandy Ridge Tunnel is 7,854 feet long. There are no children waiting on Santa in the tunnel. I stared at the spot of daylight as it grew smaller and looked longingly at the box of candy and treats I would have been digging my hands into to hurl fistfuls to smiling children. Santa apologized for my luck. I said it was fine, because I am a bit of geek when it comes to bridges and tunnels and I’d never seen the inside of a 90-year-old tunnel and wasn’t it amazing they achieved such a project back then? Santa said I had a good attitude. Just as we were engulfed with daylight as the rear of the train cleared the southern end of the Sandy Ridge, the clock-watcher just inside the door said my time was up and called the next in line to take my place. As I left the platform, Frank told me better luck next time.
My epiphany of really understanding “the spirit of the Santa Train” occurred well into the day. I’d already encountered folks on the ground with tears of joy and still others with tears of frustration.
I was sitting in the press car staring out the window and watching the rural scenery pass. Up ahead, a small frame house stood on a hill that gave it an up-close but bird’s-eye view of the railroad tracks. As my car was about to be right in its sight line, its wooden screen door flung open, pushed by an elderly, grey-haired, small and wiry woman — literally jumping for joy, clapping her hands all the while. I’ve never seen a brighter, wider, more genuine smile. As I passed, sitting there at my table with my steno-pad notebook open and wondering what’s the story, I saw pure joy and delight. And it came with no expectation other than to see a pretty train pass by with Santa waving from the back.
Last year I was humbled, deeply, to be named the 2016 recipient of the Ed Moore Santa Train Award. It is given each year to one person for having made a significant contribution to the Santa Train’s success over the years. The recipient is chosen by a vote of the train’s sponsors. It is, to me, the most valued accolade I’ve received in my 30 years as a journalist. The icing on the cake (as if there needed to be any): CSX invited me to bring a non-working guest. And yes, I chose my mother. And while I will have many memories of my 20 years riding the rails (and buses) with Santa and the amazing group of people who actually make the Santa Train keep being a popular tradition for communities and families from here to Kentucky and back, my best ones will always be sharing the experience with Mom.
J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times-News.