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75 things to know about the Santa Train

J. H. Osborne • Nov 18, 2017 at 1:59 AM

1) First run: 1943.

2) Over the Santa Train’s three-quarters-of-a-century history, only four men have made the commitment to personally make sure Santa showed up on the back of the train: Joe Higgins (1943-1944); John Dudney (1945-1983); Frank Brogden (1984-2002); and Don Royston (2000 to present).

3) Flem Dobyns of Dobyns-Taylor Hardward Store and Bill Waddell of the Kingsport Times-News are credited with the original idea for “the Santa Special.”

4) Over the years, many dignitaries and local officials have been guests on the train. For the past two decades, a country performer (or two) has acted as Santa’s special helper each year.

5) Travis Tritt boarded the train in 1998 at one of its Southwest Virginia stops and rode with Santa the rest of the way to Kingsport. His impromptu participation was not announced to the media or public ahead of time. But it began a trend that has continued to this day. Tritt’s ride with Santa was followed by:

6) Patty Loveless in 1999.

7) No record of a celebrity in 2000.

8) Kree Harrison in 2001 (Joe Diffie was originally scheduled along with Harrison, but had to cancel due to a death in his family).

9) Patty Loveless in 2002.

10) No record of a celebrity in 2003.

11) Rebecca Lynn Howard in 2004.

12) Naomi Judd in 2005.

13) Alison Krauss in 2006.

14) Patty Loveless in 2007.

15) Kathy Mattea in 2008.

16) Wynonna in 2009.

17) Naomi and Wynonna Judd in 2010.

18) Thompson Squared in 2011.

19) Thompson Squared in 2012.

20) Kree Harrison in 2013.

21) Amy Grant in 2014.

22) Meghan Linsey in 2015.

23) Darryl Worley in 2016.

24) Ricky Skaggs this year.

25) This year’s train will consist of two restored vintage locomotives and nine cars from CSX’s business car fleet:

26) Leading the train will be locomotive CRR 800, which was built in 1948 as an F5 model, but was soon upgraded to an 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 relettered with “CRR 800.”

27) Following right behind CRR 800 will be CRR 3632, a model SD45 which 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.

28) The Waycross. The car was built by the Pullman Company in 1926 as a private car owned by W.R. Kenan, president of the Federal Election Commission. It was lettered “Florida East Coast” and named the Randleigh. In 2008, CSX refurbished the car, creating three one-bedroom suites. It was renamed Waycross.

29) The North Carolina. This car was constructed in 1915 by the Pullman Company available for lease under the name Manhattan. In 1950, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad purchased the car and rebuilt it into a three-bedroom business car at the Emerson shop in Rocky Mount, N.C. The car was named the North Carolina in 1984 and underwent extensive restoration in 1999. The interior was reconfigured to two one-bedroom suites.

30) The New York. Originally a 1925 Pullman-built parlor observation car with a drawing room created for service on New York Central’s Empire State Express, this dining car was renamed the Hudson River and served the Empire State Express in the early 1930s. The large rear platform was constructed to accommodate President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wheelchair. It was renamed Kalamazoo River in 1942 and served the Twilight Limited, then renamed Victoria Park in 1947 and used in special service. In 1952, it was converted to track inspection car No. 30 and renumbered 76 by Penn Central in 1976. The car was part of the funeral train for slain presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. Changed to No. 10 by Conrail in 1977, the New York is now part of CSX’s fleet.

31) The Tennessee. A former Southern Railway 52-seat coach, it was built in 1958 by Pullman and named Southerner. CSX purchased it in 2008 and converted it into a café, lounge, and diner at the Waycross Coach Shop. The car was renamed Tennessee and first placed in service in the 2008 Kentucky Derby special. Its interior was constructed to simulate a previously owned tavern/lounge L&N car 3001, built by ACF in 1946, with a distinctive full service beverage station in the center of the car.

32) The Ohio. Built by Budd in 1948 as a diner/theater car with seating for 52, the Ohio was the dining section of a twin-unit diner set that coupled with a lunch counter/kitchen/crew car for the built but never operated Chessie daylight streamliner planned to operate between Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati. CSX purchased the car in 2008 and Waycross Coach Shop refurbished the diner, which CSX renamed and numbered.

33) The Louisiana. Built in 1917 by the Pullman Company, the car was first used as a post office baggage car. It was one of three in the series that was rebuilt in the early 1950s with a turtleback roof. Later the car was dedicated to maintenance-of-way service under ACL, SCL, SBD and finally CSX. Its last maintenance-of-way assignment was in Lakeland, Fla., for use as a cable car. This car is now used as support for storage and as a commissary for events like the Santa Train.

34) The Michigan. Built for the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1951 by Budd, this car was a stainless steel, lightweight parlor car with a drawing room. It was named Baron De Kalb and originally assigned to a senator. Later it was used for first class service on the Boston – New York – Washington corridor. Penn Central acquired the car in 1968 and rebuilt it with a galley for food service and redesignated it as a galley/club car. All of the cars in this series were named after Revolutionary war heroes. After Conrail acquired it from its predecessor, it was converted to a meeting/boardroom car in 1980. The car became part of the CSX fleet after the merger and was named the Michigan.

35) The Illinois. This former CSX 350 was built by the St. Louis Car Co. in 1953. During its lifetime, it has served as an Operation Lifesaver car, Chessie Steam Special car, dormitory car for the West Virginia Railroad Maintenance Authority and as a U.S. Army Ambulance Unit Car.

36) The West Virginia. This is Santa’s car. Built as an Army hospital car in 1953 by the St. Louis Car Co., the 310 has a small lounge, two roomette-style sleeping rooms and a large, open room. For all but two days a year, the West Virginia serves as a conference/reception car. The weekend before Thanksgiving, the West Virginia is transformed into Santa’s “sleigh.”

37) Between 1953 and 1983, another office car served as Santa’s ride: the Clinchfield 100. It has been restored by the Wataugua Valley Railroad Historical Society & Museum and will be on display behind the depot near Centennial Park as this year’s Santa Train rolls into town.

38) This year marks the 10th anniversary of “The Santa Train Tradition.” Written by local author Leigh Anne W. Hoover and illustrated by Carl Bates Murray, the book tells the story of 7-year-old Ben Massey and his annual family tradition of walking to meet the Santa Train on the chilly Saturday morning before Thanksgiving. The sale of the children’s book has generated more than $10,000 for the Santa Train Scholarship, which is awarded annually to a graduating senior along the route. The Literacy Council of Kingsport, Inc. also benefits from the sale of the book. Santa will have a limited number of copies of “The Santa Train Tradition” on board the train this year for distribution. The book may also still be purchased in the gift shop at the Kingsport Chamber as well as several other book stores in Kingsport.

39) For most of its history, the Santa Train tossed gifts continously anywhere folks (especially children) were waiting beside the tracks. It also stopped in multiple communities for a few minutes to toss items into the gathered crowds. Since 2001, gifts are distributed only at stops.

40) How many stops? Fourteen, including the starting point of Shelby, Ky. (described in some train promotional material as CSX’s Shelby Yard and “short for the adjacent town of Shelbiana”) and the end of the line in downtown Kingsport. Those in between:

41) Marrowbone.

42) Elkhorn City. For more than 70 years, Elkhorn City was the northern terminus of the Clinchfield Railroad — and, thus, was the original starting point of the Santa Train.

43) Toms Bottom.

44) Haysi. Vintage memorabilia from the train tell a tale of the naming of Haysi. A man named Si operated a ferry across the river, but he often took naps when business was slow. To get his attention, folks on the other side wanting to cross would yell, “Hey, Si.”

45) Clincho.

46) Fremont.

47) Dante. If you’re not from around here, you’d best find a local and ask how to pronounce the name of the town. It is NOT the same as the Italian poet of the late Middle Ages.

48) St. Paul. Crowd-wise, one of the train’s largest stops. Vintage train memorabilia state St. Paul originally meant to mimmick Minnesota’s Twin Cities, but Minneapolis (just south across the Clinch River) is found only on older maps.

49) Dungannon. Folks around Dungannon — like their counterparts in Dante — have turned the Santa Train’s annual passage into a community homecoming.

50) Fort Blackmore.

51) Kermit.

52) Waycross.

53) The train’s route offers stunning views to Santa and his elves as it passes through Breaks Interstate Park, known by many as “the Grand Canyon of the South.”

54) It also passes through the Sandy Ridge Tunnel, listed as the longest tunnel on the old Clinchfield line and perhaps the longest tunnel in the CSX system today at 7,854 feet.

55) A few hundred feet north of the tunnel in 1915, at Trammel, Clinchfield & Ohio founder George L. Carter drove a golden spike to complete the last 32 miles of the 277-mile Clinchfield Railroad.

56) For train watchers, one of the best views of the Santa Train is as it crosses the Copper Creek Viaduct, adjacent to U.S. Route 23 about 10.5 miles north of Gate City. Construction of the 167-foot high, 1,091-foot long trestle — the highest bridge on the old Clinchfield line — was completed in 1909. The train should cross the bridge between 1:03 p.m. (when it departs Fort Blackmore) and 1:48 p.m. (when it arrives at Kermit).

57) Prior to this year, the Santa Train often was promoted as “the longest Christmas parade in the world,” because once Santa arrived in Kingsport he was the grand finale of the annual Kingsport Christmas Parade. This year the parade’s date has been changed to Dec. 2.

58) For many years, the Santa Train has always run the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

59) That apparently wasn’t always the case. A front page story from the Monday, Nov. 22, 1954 edition of the Kingsport Times reported the train was scheduled to roll into town that Friday — the day after Thanksgiving. It also offered the following details:

60) Santa was scheduled to arrive in Kingsport at 5:30 p.m., according to W.B. Greene, president of the Merchants Bureau of the Chamber of Commerce.

61) Greene said a group would leave Kingsport by private railroad car at 7 p.m. Thanksgiving Day and meet Santa at Elkhorn City, Ky., early Friday morning.

62) Santa would head to Kingsport on Friday and make 27 stops to distribute “candy and toys to children.”

63) Although the article used the word “stops,” the timeline included makes it clear Santa pretty much passed through the 27 communities listed.

64) The timeline outlined in the story indicates the Santa Train that year planned to make the journey in about 4.5 hours.

65) Local merchants riding with Santa that year were: Greene, Jack Vaughn, W.E. Gardner, Ralph Grant, Flem Dobyns, A.M. Brinkley and E.B. Blankenbecler. Also along: Ben Haden, general manager of the Kingsport Publishing Company, and Ellis Binkley, executive editor of the Times-News.

66) Until a few years ago, “Santa Train” was a common nickname for what was officially billed as “The Santa Claus Special.”

67) When the local businessmen came up with the idea back in 1943, they quickly gained the cooperation of officials for the Clinchfield Railroad, whose 227 miles of tracks ran from Spartanburg, S.C., to Elkhorn City, Ky. Through mergers, the train is now a part of CSX Transportation, and the company has remained committed to keeping the Santa Train tradition alive.

68) The Merchants Bureau of the early 1940s is now the Kingsport Chamber. Today, CSX and the Chamber are joined in sponsoring the train by Food City, Applachian Power and Soles4Souls.

69) This is Food City’s 24th year as a sponsor and the main purveyor of food distributed by Santa and his elves. In 1993, the late Ed Moore, a longtime Food City employee, was asked to take on the responsibility of gathering goods for the train by Raymond Galyon, who worked for Oakwood Markets and had served in the role for many years, earning the nickname “the biggest bum in East Tennessee.” Today Jamie Horton serves in the role.

70) Each year since Food City became a sponsor, the grocery chain has hosted a “packing party” outside its store on Eastman Road in Kingsport, giving members of the community a chance to participate in the sorting and packaging of foodstuffs bound for distribution along the train’s route.

71) The train draws donations from across the nation. Many people attribute that to the train’s being featured on a segment of the CBS television program “On the Road with Charles Kuralt” in the early 1980s.

72) For its 50th running in 1992, CSX arranged for the Challenger, the world’s largest operating steam locomotive, to lead the Santa Train. Hall of Fame sports broadcaster Joe Garagiola rode the train that year and filmed a segment that aired on NBC television on Christmas morning.

73) A former CSX employee named Regina Smith came to be known as “the angel of the Santa Train” for her efforts to make sure as many children as possible got something from the train. Smith worked especially to meet the needs of the physically challenged. She pioneered what is today known as Santa’s “ground crew,” who get off at each stop and enter the crowds.

74) The train waits for no one. Not when it’s starting its journey at Shelby or at any of its stops. Volunteers or journalists who linger too long after hearing the warning whistle have to find the nearest CSX security staff and request a ride to the next stop.

75) “Santa see you!”

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