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By Jack M. Turner

Photos By John C. Turner

    On the Saturday before Thanksgiving the sounds of gleeful children fill the small communities and hollows of rural Appalachia as the annual CSX Santa Train makes its way from Shelby, KY to Kingsport, TN.  At each stop Santa Claus makes his appearance on the rear platform of the last car from which he and a handful of volunteers toss candy and soft toys to the crowd of children encircling the back end of the train.  Meanwhile, several other volunteers detrain and walk among the crowd distributing gifts, wrapping paper, and other goodies.

    Clinchfield Railroad ran the first Santa Train in 1943 in conjunction with the predecessor to today's Kingsport Chamber of Commerce.  Initially the Santa Train consisted of a couple of extra cars added to the rear of the local passenger train that served the route between Kingsport and Elkhorn City, KY.  When the scheduled passenger train ceased operation in the mid-1950s, the Santa Train continued as its own special train.  The idea behind the Santa Train was to give to the children of the impoverished Appalachia region north of Kingsport which was connected by the railroad.  The Santa Train marched on when the Clinchfield was absorbed into the Family Lines rail system in the 1970s and later the Seaboard System in 1982.  And when the CSX mega-railroad was formed in 1986, the tradition lived on in magnificent fashion.

    The Clinchfield/CSX Santa Train has long fascinated this writer since my family roots are firmly planted in Kingsport.  My grandfather, Leroy Sprankle, was the football/basketball/baseball/track coach at Dobyns-Bennett High School in the 1920s and '30s and was known by many as "the father of East Tennessee sports".  My mother was born in Kingsport where she lived until her teenage years.  The high school named its gymnasium for Grandad and many early athletic stars in Kingsport, most notably legendary Georgia Tech football coach Bobby Dodd, played for him.  Thus when my son and I were invited to ride the 2010 Santa Train, there was no hesitation in accepting the opportunity.

    After a lengthy drive from north Florida, we met our hosts at the Kingsport Chamber and soon joined in a kickoff dinner at a local eatery.  It was apparent that most of the participants knew one another as the Santa Train volunteers come from various walks of life in the Kingsport area.  What we came to find out over the course of the next 24 hours was that these folks have hearts of gold as they would work hard to bring smiles to the Appalachian children of southeastern Kentucky, western Virginia, and northeastern Tennessee.  Following dinner approximately 80 volunteers and members of the media boarded a pair of chartered busses for the two hour drive to Pikeville, KY where we spent a short night at the excellent Hampton Inn. 

    We reboarded the busses at 5:30am on Saturday November 20, 2010 for the 8 mile drive to the CSX Shelby Yard where the 9 car Santa Train waited.  A pair of CSX engines led the train with the trailing unit, CSX 9999 having started its career as Amtrak 288.  The train's 9 cars (from the CSX office car fleet) were smartly painted in blue CSX livery.  Members of the media were assigned to the sixth car, the Tennessee, a cafe/lounge/dining car built by Pullman in 1957 as a 52 seat coach.  Only eight members of the media plus a CSX video crew had been invited to ride as the Santa Train is a working train not an excursion operation. Our day was neatly choreographed with opportunities to detrain at alternate stops to permit  the collection storylines at various communities with on board interviews at established times between stops.

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CSX office car "Tennessee" was home base for invited media.  This car serves as a cafe/lounge/dining car.  Note the large screen at the end of the car which projects live video from the train's rear platform (below).

 Consist of the 2010 Santa Train

CSX 8506 SD50 engine (ex SBD)   
CSX 9999 F40 engine (ex Amtrak 288) 
CSX 363 Kentucky
CSX   11 Youngstown
CSX 994500 Ohio
CSX 319 Greenbrier
CSX   10 New York
CSX 325 Tennessee
CSX 315 Indiana
CSX 350 Illinois
CSX 310 West Virginia

    Each year the Santa Train welcomes a celebrity guest to assist with the distribution of toys and goodwill.  This year's train actually featured two celebrities, country music superstars Naomi and Wynonna Judd.  Naomi was the celebrity guest in 2005 while Wynonna participated in 2009.  As natives of Ashland, KY, the mother and daughter team have long been interested in rural Appalachia and are thus natural participants in this endeavor.

    Several of the office cars behind the Tennessee were loaded with 15 tons of toys to be distributed at the day's 14 stops.  Many of these had been packed in color coded bags to be handed to children of the appropriate age; lime green bags were intended for babies, red bags for girls up to age 9, purple for 9-15 year old girls, orange bags for boys up to age 9, etc.  Other volunteers would tote heavy burlap bags jammed with stuffed animals, playing cards, toy cars, coloring books, and other popular items which would be given individually to kids of the appropriate ages.  And a third group of volunteers would roam the crowd distributing rolls of wrapping paper to eager adults. Amazingly all of these items neatly lined the walls of the forward office cars in containers that made the distribution process orderly.  A similar setup maintained supplies of candy and soft toys waiting to be tossed from the rear platform.  It was clear that the Kingsport Chamber had the process down to a science as it was imperative that the train arrive in Kingsport on time since Santa was to ride aboard a fire truck in the annual Christmas parade.  To maintain the schedule, each stop was scheduled for 15-20 minutes which meant toys, wrapping paper, and gift bags would have to be handed out efficiently.

Color coded bags handed to children at the Santa Train's stops are color coded by children's age and gender.

A volunteer fills burlap bags with toys and stuffed animals for the next stop.

A volunteer prepares to bring Christmas joy to waiting children.

    It was still dark outside when the train pulled to the south end of Shelby Yard at 6:10am to allow Santa and his helpers to throw some toys and candy to a small group of waiting kids.  Inside the Tennessee a large screen displayed live views from the rear platform and the sounds of children yelling "Santa, Santa!" could be clearly heard.     We were underway for good at 6:30am for the 20 minute run to Marrowbone where a crowd of approximately 300 waited for our 6:50am arrival at dawn.  After the brief stop the train paralleled the Russell Fork as the tracks curved along the foot of the mountains.  While the train worked its way southward, one car ahead workers busily prepared a new set of gift bags for distribution at the next stop.

    Elkhorn City was reached at 7:25 and a huge crowd was on hand despite the early hour.  It was a moving experience to observe volunteers passing out presents to appreciative children along with gift wrap to adults. Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Santa, and his helpers threw candy and soft toys from the rear platform to a massive throng.  As was the case at each stop, a band of CSX employees had arrived in advance of the train to secure the right-of-way and prevent injuries to the public.  These folks did a terrific job of executing this thankless but critical job as train operations came off smoothly all day.  Back aboard the train CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan stated that CSX safety personnel were on the ground to ensure the safety of the public and to keep people out of the way of the moving train.  If an invited guest or volunteer somehow missed the train's departure from one of the stops, the safety team would drive them to the next stop.  Mr. Sullivan noted: "We (CSX) take great pride in this important event.  At the end of the day everyone is very tired but the beauty is it is rewarding.  This is a busy railroad and this gives us a chance to stop a train for the communities."  He added: "This is a family tradition.  Some of the public are here because their parents and grandparents brought them years ago."  When asked about the participation of the Judds, Mr. Sullivan observed, "We are thankful for their love and respect for these communities."

Wynonna Judd tosses a stuffed animal to a lucky child at Elkhorn City, KY.

A volunteer hands a stuffed animal to one of the kids at Elkhorn City.

The Elkhorn City Railroad Museum stands beside the CSX rails.

    Indeed the contribution of CSX cannot be overstated.  The former Clinchfield line sees an average of 22 trains per day, most of which transport coal.  On the day in which the Santa Train operates, the entire line from Shelby to Kingsport basically shuts down.  Only two trains were spotted during our nine hours aboard the Santa Train and both were waiting or tied down on sidings.  With a contingent of CSX employees actively working on board as well as those handling trackside safety, there is a strong CSX involvement beyond the tracks and the office cars comprising the Santa Train.  Though national news media has ridden the Santa Train on select years, the Santa Train remains a "community service first" operation which garners limited publicity outside the region it serves.

    Just south of Elkhorn City we pass through one of 30 tunnels along the 110 mile route then follow the whitewater Russell Fork below sheer cliffs near Breaks Interstate Park.  Brief stops are made at Toms Bottom and Haysi, Virginia and we note that Haysi is especially remote as it is tucked between two railroad tunnels.  The kids are just as enthusiastic here as along the rest of the route and it is amazing that they are so alert on a Saturday at 8:30am. 

The Russell Fork south of Elkhorn City.

Along the Russell Fork approaching Toms Bottom.

The twisting line approaching Toms Bottom.

Santa tosses a soft toy from the platform of CSX office car "West Virginia" at Haysi, VA.

A young girl waits expectantly for a toy.

Kids reach to the sky in hopes of catching a prize tossed from the rear of the train.

Fathers' shoulders are a favorite perch as seen at Haysi.
The stop at Haysi is located between a pair of tunnels.

    During the bus ride the prior evening we passed several Food City grocery stores.  It was evident that this is the area's leading grocery chain; it is also apparent that this company cares for its region as it is one of the prime sponsors of the Santa Train.  As we depart Haysi we have the chance to speak with Alicia Lyons, Executive Director of Kids Wish Network, which is in its first year as a lead sponsor of the event.  "Toy manufacturers donate toys to Kids Wish, we pack the toys in Holiday, Florida, and CSX transports them here for the Santa Train," stated Ms. Lyons who added,  "This is spectacular.  I expected it to be a fun event but find it even more rewarding to participate."  Kids Wish is in the business of granting wishes to needy and ill children and has existed for 13 years.  For information about the Kids Wish Network, visit

    The train stops in Clinchco on-time at 9:00 and Santa and company work their magic while we watch via the big screen in the Tennessee.  A few minutes later we roll into Fremont and are greeted by one of the day's largest crowds.  Wynonna and Naomi disembark to meet the crowd and it is touching to see their genuine affection for the locals.  A number of handicapped people welcome the Judds who cheerfully pose for photos and share hugs with them.  The presence of the country music superstars doesn't hinder the mission of the train one bit as many kids, parents, and grandparents remain near the rear of the train in hopes of catching items tossed by Santa and his assistants.  While several volunteers roam the crowd distributing gifts, a man who is holding his little boy on his shoulders stands well behind the crowd, perhaps too shy to bump elbows with the 600 or so people packing the area near the tracks.  Sure enough, before long a volunteer finds the man and his son and hands the delighted child a gift bag.  Another little boy, also perched on his daddy's shoulder, displays excitement as his outstretched arms reach for toys thrown by Santa.  His excited look turns to disappointment as a little girl, perhaps his younger sister, catches the item that he had spied.  Soon his face beams as one of the volunteers seeks him out and hands him a present that to him is the grandest gift of all.

Entering a tunnel leading to Clinchco, VA.

A small crowd gathers around the rear car at Clinchco.

The Santa Train winds through the mountainous terrain between Clinchco and Fremont.

Santa prepares to toss a present to a little girl.

Wynonna Judd hugs an Appalachian woman in Fremont, VA.

Naomi Judd poses for a photo with a young man in Fremont.

Youngsters in Fremont hug their new stuffed animals.

Clemson University President Jim Barker passes out wrapping paper at Fremont.  Dr. Barker graduated from Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport.  Later in the day he would be Grand Marshall of Kingsport's Christmas parade.

Joyful looks from the children along the Santa Train route made the day memorable.

    The driving force behind the Santa Train is the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce and Charlie Floyd, Chamber Chairman, commented that the Santa Train is a vital outreach of the Chamber as it reaches beyond the borders of Kingsport.  "This train is important to the participants and to the communities," observed Mr. Floyd.  "We appreciate the generosity of the sponsors and the railroad.  It's amazing to see how well it works and how it changes the way that participants feel."  When asked to describe the organization of the Santa Train, Mr. Floyd noted, "Logistics are so important.  It's important to get the right toys to the right kids.  CSX knows the special needs of some of the kids along the route.  Chamber members, sponsors, and donors plan months ahead for this one day."  The Kingsport Chamber also sponsors an annual essay contest that awards a scholarship to a high school student along the route who tells the story of their experience with the Santa Train.

    The next stop, Dante, is reached at 10:30 and the look on the children's faces is priceless.  A little girl clutches the cuddly stuffed animal she has just received while a toddler bundled up in a stroller smiles as she also is given a stuffed animal.  An 8 year old boy proudly holds up a football bearing the letters "CSX" on its side while another child thumbs through the coloring book she has just been given. 

A scene from rural Appalachia with cars parked near the Santa Train stop for Dante, VA.

A crowd waits for Santa and company at Dante.

Several locals wait beside CSX office car "Illinois" at Dante.

Kids reach for gifts tossed from the rear of the train at Dante.

Santa makes a precise toss aimed at a specific child.

    After 20 minutes the Santa Train is underway again en route to St. Paul, VA.  The thought registers that before the trip our primary expectation was to enjoy the scenery and the opportunity to cover the northern half of the Clinchfield line but already we have come to appreciate the human element of this event as the memory that would endure from the day.  Along the right-of-way we spot numerous photographers capturing the train's progress and a steady stream of chasers on the roads that occasionally parallel the railroad provides evidence of the interest the Santa Train generates.

A turntable is located in a small yard on the south side of Dante.

    We reach St. Paul at 11:08 to the delight of another of the day's huge crowds.  Kids and adults alike wave appreciatively at us as we peer out the window as the train eases to a stop.  We are escorted to the rear of the train for a brief look at the Judds and Santa tossing goodies from the train.  This view offers a totally different perspective from the ground views we have witnessed as there is a sea of locals behind the train and hundreds of outstretched arms reaching for the prized toys and candies emanating from the rear platform of the West Virginia.

A sea of faces behind the train as Santa and the Judds toss candy and gifts to excited children.

One of the day's largest crowds is at St. Paul.  Note volunteers wearing neon yellow shirts and CSX safety personnel in bright vests.  The brilliant colors make it easy to identify personnel affiliated with the Santa Train.

The Santa Train begins to round a curve as it continues its journey across southwestern Virginia.

    After retreating to our car, we partake of our boxed lunches while enjoying a twisting 40 minute ride along the Clinch River as it navigates between numerous mountains.  Soon it is time to get to work as the train stops at Dungannon.  This is our opportunity to hand out some gifts and John takes an armload of the colored bags while I take a burlap bag stuffed with individual toys for a variety of ages.  The job of matching specific items (stuffed animals, matchbox cars, preschool CDs, playing cards, coloring books, etc.) to the appropriate aged children is challenging for a newcomer but the smiles and appreciation from the kids gives back an unforgettable warm feeling.  Our respect for the volunteers who do this at every stop is enhanced as a lot more goes into this process than meets the observer's eye.

Another sizable crowd waits at Dungannon, VA.

    The Santa Train's arrival in Fort Blackmore is greeted by the usual massive crowd along with photographers on an overpass and along an embankment as the train comes to a stop on a curve.  Railfan William Pierson, who was born in Fort Blackmore, captures the train's arrival with his camera before driving ahead to photograph the train at a later stop.  "I am 48 years old and my parents took me to see Santa when I was little," stated Mr. Pierson.  "I have been going to see the Santa Train ever since then.  My two kids have seen the train and now my five grandchildren are going.  I remember the days when all Santa would throw off the train was a 5 x 7 colored note pad and crayons."  He quipped,  "It has grown just a little."

The CSX Santa Train arrives in Fort Blackmore, VA.  (Photo by William Pierson).

The Santa Train prepares to stop for a couple hundred kids in Fort Blackmore.  (Photo by William Pierson).

    While the crowd encircles the train, a middle aged man sits on the front of his pickup truck.  He is encouraged to get a closer look but advises that his bad back makes it difficult to do so.  A volunteer is summoned and soon a pack of playing cards is given to him.  "This is a great event," he observes.  "This is the first time I've come out to see the Santa Train." 

    CSX moves the train like clockwork as the departure from Fort Blackmore is on-time at 1:08pm.  A media interview session with Naomi and Wynonna Judd is enlightening as they talk about the Santa Train experience, their upbringing in rural Kentucky, and various other subjects as our train continues its trek through Appalachia.  Regarding the crowds at the train's various stops, Wynonna observes, "I feel like I've stepped into a space connecting with these people."  Naomi adds that it is special getting to hug the kids, many of whom never leave the hollows where they live.  "This reminds me what year it is.  Wynonna is an 8th generation Kentuckian.  If she didn't become a singer, I'd be right here as a nurse.  Growing up, I had a dream of being a nurse in Appalachia."  Asked how she started her career, Wynonna reflects, "I started singing on the back porch after my mom gave me a guitar.  It was my destiny." 

Departing Fort Blackmore, the Santa Train is still two hours from the end of its run.  (Photo by William Pierson).

TrainWeb photographer John Turner (left) and author Jack Turner visit with Naomi and Wynonna Judd aboard the Santa Train.

    Shortly after the interview concludes, the scenery opens up as a large valley comes into view.  Below on the right a Norfolk Southern rail line parallels and soon we cross the towering Copper Creek Trestle which spans the valley and the Clinch River.  The view is breathtaking and a hoard of photographers are stationed along the highway across the valley.  Ten minutes later we make a stop in Kermit then advance six miles to Waycross, the final en route stop.  As promised, CSX delivers Santa to a couple thousand waiting residents in Kingsport at 3:10pm and the annual Christmas parade begins almost immediately.

Crossing spectacular Copper Creek Trestle.

A Norfolk Southern bridge far below the CSX line as we cross Copper Creek Trestle.

A broad valley seen from Copper Creek Trestle.

Looking to the rear (north) as we exit Copper Creek Trestle.

Reaching for a gift at Waycross near the Virginia/Tennessee border.

This fellow is definitely excited by Santa's arrival.

The parents and grandparents of many children who greeted the Santa Train waited for Santa during the past 68 years.

A huge crowd welcomes the Santa Train to Kingsport, TN.  In a few minutes the annual Christmas parade will get underway.

The Christmas parade kicks off on Kingsport's Main Street.

The Santa Train's lead engine wears a Santa Train decal.

    The Santa Train has endured World War II, the Korean, Vietnam, and Middle Eastern Wars, and numerous changes in the political landscape.  During the Santa Train's 68 years, the interstate highway system has been built, jet air travel has become the standard, man has landed on the moon, and the Clinchfield Railroad has been absorbed into the CSX system.  Yet the needs of rural Appalachia remain and the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, the railroad, a host of volunteers, and other organizations continue to step to the plate to spread Christmas joy to the people of the region.

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