The Santa Train has been rolling through the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee along the routes of the former Clinchfield Railroad since 1943 and has become a family tradition ever since. Local businessmen in Kingsport TN decided that year that they wanted to do something special for their neighboring small coalfield communities to thank them for their patronage. They had the idea of a Special Christmas Train that would deliver gifts to the children along the route. The Clinchfield railroad officials immediately saw the public relation benefits also and were glad to help the Kingsport group set up "The Santa Claus Special". Originally it only consisted of only one car and a few toys and candy that were thrown out to the kids along the tracks. It was the middle of WW II and may have been the only gifts the kids received. It has grown today to include 14 stops and 15 tons of toys! However, the Bluemoonistic Team was witness to the fact that it is still about the children and the Christmas spirit!
We doubt that Flem Dobyns of the Dobyns-Taylor Hardware Store and Bill Waddell of the Kingsport Times-News who came up with this idea had any idea how the tradition would grow and continue to this day! This year was the 75th Anniversary of "The Santa Train" as it is called today. In all these years there have amazingly only been four men who played Santa: Joe Higgins (1943-44), John Dudley (1945-83), Frank Brogden (1984-2002), Don Royston (2002-present). In the beginning Santa would return to Kingsport and join in their Christmas parade, but as the crowds have grown the town decided this year to move the parade to December 2 and the local sponsors set up what they called "Santa's Depot" in the Kingsport Centennial Park.
Staying with tradition Santa's Depot was set up with all kinds of fun activities for the kids and their families to enjoy while they waited for the Santa Train to bring the jolly old man to his final destination. Christmas activities were set up in booths all around the park and created a wonderful down home atmosphere that made everyone smile. There was a booth to write letters to Santa and they got to see him pick them up personally when he arrived! The children received reindeer horns and Santa Hats at another booth that created a sea of tiny reindeer parading around waiting for Santa. There were many photo ops where parents could help their children get into the spirit. A beautiful bronze Santa in the park called "Spirit of Generosity" created by local artist Val Lyle's gave the kids another photo op! The photos could be emailed to their homes as well as printing them out on the spot for everyone to admire. There were Christmas cookies, a booth to allow kids to make Christmas wishes that were made into a chain, Christmas coloring books and even live reindeer! One was definitely a Prancer look alike! Keeping with the Santa Train tradition all these activities were free to everyone and once again sponsored by the local businesses.
The Bluemoonistic Team wandered around clicking photo after photo of smiling faces on children and adults alike. The park was decorated with Whoville style balloon trees and lots of costumed volunteers making sure everything ran smoothly. The crowds were definitely there for the children's joy and it showed. We have never experience such a polite crowd! There must have been three to four hundred people in the park by the time the Santa Train arrived but with all the fun activities no one minded the wait.
When the Santa Train pulled into the town folks were cheering and waving. Little children were hoisted up on Mom and Dad's shoulders so they could get a glimpse of Santa and hundreds of little hands were waving and shouting "Hi Santa"! It was a sea of holiday cheer that made all hearts grow in size.
Ricky Skaggs was on the Santa Train this year helping the Elves pass out gifts. When he arrived in Kingsport, he joined his band along with his wife, Sharon White and treated the crowd to a concert. It had to have been a long day for him but he put on a great performance and seemed to be having a good time along with the crowd. It was the perfect end to a special day for us.
Of course, since we love trains, we have heard about the Santa Train for years, but experiencing it in person was even more magical than we imagined. CSX brought out of retirement a special engine to lead the train this year - the first diesel engine acquired by the Clinchfield RR in 1948. The Clinchfield 800 was a splendid sight to behold for train lovers and probably brought out even more people for the occasion. We admire all the effort that goes into an event like this, the sponsors give a lot more than just money to this project. It shows! If you listen to Patty Loveless sing the song titled "Santa Train" you will get the feel for why this is such a special event in Appalachia! Put it on your playlist this holiday season! Hoo Hoo...