Ricky Skaggs will be Santa’s special guest on the train, which is sponsored by CSX, Food City, Appalachian Power, Soles4Souls and the Kingsport Chamber.
Skaggs, a Kentucky native, will help Santa distribute an estimated 17 tons of toys, food, warm clothing and other gifts to thousands of people at 14 stops along the rail route the Santa Train has followed each year since 1943.
Santa himself may be the main attraction for thousands of folks who turn out to greet the Santa Train each year. But a fair amount of the crowd shows up along the 110-mile route to see the train — especially the highly polished passenger cars, many with ties to history, and all reminders of a bygone era when rail travel was commonplace.
This year, Santa has a special treat for railroad enthusiasts and history buffs: two historic Clinchfield locomotives will lead the 75th running of the CSX Santa Train.
Leading the train will be locomotive CRR 800, which was built in 1948 as an F5 model, but was soon upgraded to a model F7 with newer traction motors. After more than 40 years of freight and passenger service, the rare locomotive was retired in 1993. It was restored this year at the CSX locomotive shop in Huntington, W.Va., where it was re-lettered with "CRR 800."
Following right behind CRR 800 will be CRR 3632, a model SD45 that was built in 1971 for the Seaboard Coast Line, another CSX predecessor.
CRR 3632 hauled freight across the continental United States for much of its operation, including for Clinchfield, and it is one of the few remaining locomotives with an operating 20-cylinder prime mover. After being retired by CSX in 1990, the locomotive changed owners multiple times before its restoration this year as the CRR 3632.
The use of the restored locomotives is meant as a tribute to the Clinchfield Railroad, CSX’s predecessor along the route traveled by the Santa Train. CSX partnered with the Southern Appalachia Railroad Museum to restore the locomotives for this year’s running of the Santa Train.
Items distributed by Santa and his helpers come from donations nationwide each year — from individuals, groups and businesses.
Each year, thousands of people — including families for whom a visit to the train is a multigenerational tradition — turn out at stops along the way, regardless of the weather.
Much of the train’s journey winds through the countryside not far from one road or another, offering motorists there a little look at what used to be a common sight in the region: a train that includes passenger cars. If you can’t make it elsewhere on the train’s route and just want a glimpse of history, a quintessential spot to view the train or snap a photo is where the Santa Train crosses the Copper Creek Viaduct, visible from U.S. Highway 23 about 15 miles north of Kingsport. If the train’s running on schedule Saturday — and it usually does — it will cross the viaduct sometime between 1 p.m. and 1:50 p.m.
Weather forecasts for points along the train's route on Saturday call for highs in the lower to mid 60s and a chance of showers in the evening.
Gifts are distributed only when the train is stopped. Nothing is thrown from the train while it is in motion. Beginning last year, the only things tossed from the rear of the train are small, soft, plush toys. Everything else is handed out by “ground crew” volunteers who get off the train and spread throughout the crowds at each stop.
The times for this year’s stops are: Shelby, 5:45 a.m; Marrowbone, 6:20 a.m.; Elkhorn City, 7:05 a.m.; Toms Bottom, 7:45 a.m.; Haysi, 8:07 a.m.; Clinchco, 8:40 a.m.; Fremont, 9:08 a.m.; Dante, 10:08 a.m.; St. Paul, 10:53 a.m.; Dungannon, 12:03 p.m.; Fort Blackmore, 12:48 p.m.; Kermit, 1:48 p.m.; Waycross, 2:20 p.m.; and downtown Kingsport, 2:58 p.m. (or about 3 p.m., according to some sources).
This year the Kingsport Christmas Parade won’t be on Saturday after the train’s arrival, as in years past. Instead, the parade will be Dec. 2 and the center of action prior to and after Santa’s arrival in downtown is the brand new “Santa’s Depot” at Centennial Park from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Sponsored booths will include cookie decorating, marshmallow fun with Professor Photon, magical wishes paper garlands (to be displayed later in the Kingsport Chamber lobby), coloring activities and more. Inflatables, a child-size train ride and holiday airbrush tattoos will be onsite and free to youngsters. Attendees will also have the opportunity to experience the magic of real reindeer and sit in Santa’s sleigh.
And Santa’s Depot will serve as the official site to create and drop off letters to Santa. Children are invited to write their letters onsite and place them in a large, red mailbox, which will be retrieved by Santa when he gets off the Santa Train.
To celebrate the new “Spirit of Generosity” sculpture, the event will include an opportunity to donate cold-weather items for distribution later to those in need. There will be a large barrel for those donations close to the sculpture, which was created by artist Val Lyle. The sculpture itself was installed Wednesday and is to be officially unveiled at a ceremony scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday.
A big piece of Santa Train history will be on display behind the CSX Depot. Train enthusiasts and Santa Train sentimentalists can view the recently restored Clinchfield 100 train car. The 100 served as Santa’s “sleigh” on the Santa Train from the early 1950s to the early 1980s and has been restored to its Clinchfield Railroad colors. Tours will not be provided due to safety regulations, but onlookers can get a great peek at this historic relic.
Santa and Skaggs will disembark from the Santa Train when it pulls into town and take to the Santa’s Depot Stage for a special performance.