The family tradition began quite by coincidence on a sunny weekend in 1988. On a family trip through sleepy coal towns in Southwest Virginia we came across the town of St. Paul. A large crowd had gathered around the rail road tracks. Always a curious person my dad stopped to ask what was happening. My brother, sister, mom, and I sat in the car, bundled up with heat running, waiting for my dad to return. He threw open my mom’s door and excitedly exclaimed, “Everybody get out. The Santa Train is coming!”
I remember the initial confusion, especially from my mom. The what train? Is coming when? But why? My sister complained because she had to stop reading her book. My brother complained because he was just five years old and didn’t want to step out into the chilly November air. But a few minutes later we were all bundled warmly and standing should to shoulder with hundreds of other people beside the tracks when I heard the shrill sound of a train whistle pierce the air.
The train slowly inched along the tracks as the crowd parted ways. We quickly realized we needed to be at the rear of the train, and we weren’t the only ones; as the train slowed to a stop the crowd surged to the rear. That’s where I caught sight of Santa Claus in all his vibrant red and bright white glory standing on the covered porch of the caboose.
He began tossing out t-shirts, board games, stuffed animals, and books. Volunteers in pickup trucks beside the train handed out canned food, boxes of oatmeal and noodles, and juice. For nearly ten minutes we stood there, enthralled as the spectacle of the event, my brother on my dad’s shoulders, and my sister and I reaching as high as we could muster to snag a goodie out of the air.
For ten years we would eagerly await the next Santa Train. That first year we only caught the event in St. Paul because we were on our way to see the great-grandparents. But following years we turned the train into a day long event as we chased it from town to town, stopping where we could, and snagging up as many goodies as possible. Just as the train had originally been intended to help disadvantaged, poor coal mining families have a better Christmas, the Santa Train helped my family have a better holiday season.
1998 would be the last time I would see the Santa Train with my family. I went off to college and my family moved away from the mountains. My brother and sister would never return to this area. But in 2014 I found myself living nearby in Abingdon and just knew it was the perfect time to reignite that tradition, if only for myself.
My first year back for the tradition was a good year. The temps were just warm enough to be comfortable with long sleeved shirts and jeans, and the beaming sun through the clear skies warmed my face and hands. Cloggers performed on a makeshift stage nearby, filling the air with Christmas music. Parents chatted as children tried to see how far they could walk along the steel tracks without falling off. A thousand people stood in clusters, anxiously looking up the curved tracks, waiting for the first sight of the train.
I walked up the steep bank to a section of the track a few hundred feet away from the crowd and suddenly a feeling of nostalgia swept over me. A man stopped his car next to me and asked, “What’s going on today?” His wife was sitting next to him and three children in the backseat. Just as someone had told me dad all those years ago, I looked at the guy and replied, “The Sana Train.” I went on to explain a little about what it was and the father quickly parked the car and joined me with his family. They were from nearby Bristol and were just out for a drive for the day. As they walked along the tracks I wondered if they had a suitcase in their car for all the candy?
A few minutes later the crowd surged toward the tracks as a shrill train whistle pierced the calm air. The train slowly inched along the tracks and came to a stop with the last car in the middle of the crowd, and Santa Claus stepped out onto the back. Along with a few volunteers they began tossing out one item after another. Fleece blankets, toboggans, gloves, plush animals, a few bags of potato chips, and loads of candy. Children sat on their father’s shoulders, two feet above the rest of the crowd, their arms outstretched just waiting for something to come sailing their direction. They giggled, they laughed, they shrieked when their fingers wrapped around a blanket or a coloring book.
As the train whistle announced a five minute warning until departure I quickly left the scene. I hopped in my car, posted a photo to Instagram, and pulled out onto Highway 58 heading toward Coeburn. The train would take forty five minutes to get from St. Paul to Dungannon, the next stop, but I could just beat that time. If I was the only car on the road. I wasn’t. By the time I got off Highway 58 onto State Route 72 in Coeburn, I found two cars already ahead of me. Considering we were all flying about 55 mph on this two lane, curvy road I suspected we were all trying to do the same thing: dart between two stops before the train got there. Soon I was followed by two more cars. We were a caravan of thrill seekers, all trying to catch The Santa Train again. This was the section of Route 72 made me car sick every single year as a child: by the time the curve to the right ends, the curve to the left begins, followed by a hairpin turn as you descend a hundred feet, continuing for about five miles. Just because I’m older doesn’t mean I never get car sick. I wasn’t feeling all that great by the time I rolled into the next town.
Dungannon is another small country town with only a single road passing through. I arrived ten minutes before the train, but other people had been here for hours. Both sides of the road was lined with cars parked everywhere they could possibly fit. I ended up a half mile down the road at a Dollar General. The drivers are mindful of the families walking in the road and I didn’t see anyone pushing or shoving to get into a tight parking space. It was a welcome sight considering the horrors of Black Friday that comes in less than a week.
I watched from a distance as the train rolled into Dungannon precisely on time. People surged, children hopped up on their dad’s shoulders, plush animals were thrown out. At each of the stops several trucks would compliment The Santa Train with candy, plush animals, and wrapping paper. This is what reminded me of my own family splitting up during the Santa Train: my dad, brother, and I would stay near the train for the toys and candy, my mom and sister would go to the trucks for the wrapping paper. I watched as a family of five walked away with about ten rolls of 25′ wrapping paper.
I hustled across the well-worn grassy path back to my car a half mile away. I wanted to get out ahead of the traffic this time because I had no idea what to expect in Fort Blackmore. I wish I had taken my time, however. State Route 65/72 parallels the railroad track between Dungannon and Fort Blackmore. Several times I would notice the railroad tracks off in the distance, absolutely flat and straight, with a majestic mountain range behind it. I looked for a place to pull over. I wanted to wait for the train to pass by so I could capture this photo. As it always happens, I couldn’t find any safe place to pull off the road. I missed an opportunity for what I am certain would have been a stunning photo to capture the moment, but this just gives me a reason to return next year. Well, one reason. I have many.
I made a quick stop at Fort Blackmore, watching as the train rolled past just a few minutes after I arrived. I got up close to the train, got my photos, snagged a bag of Funyuns, and decided to head back to my car. That’s when I was pleasantly “assaulted” by the plush animals. Santa was looking right at me. He’s probably already noticed me at the two previous stops. I’m 6’1″ with a massive 80-200mm camera lens pointed right at him. Most people would notice that. I might should’ve kept one of the plush animals as a souvenir because I’m just sentimental enough to do something like that, but instead handed it off to a kid on her father’s shoulders. I don’t think she understood that it was a giant black and yellow centipede, but she loved it anyways.
I hopped back into the car and made a turn down State Route 65 toward Clinchport. At this point, there would be no more stops near the train for me. The Santa Train continues along the tracks, but on the opposite side of the Clinch River from any other towns. It climbs up the mountain side about 500′ in elevation before crossing Copper Creek. I raced down the narrow road because I knew my next stop would be one of the most photogenic of the day: The Santa Train crossing the Copper Creek Viaduct. The viaduct is a towering train trestle over the cut in the mountain created by Copper Creek, where it flows into the Clinch River. It’s always been a bit of a tourist draw, which is why the transportation department built a small overlook on the side of the road when they were building Highway 23. The overlook has parking for about fifteen cars with a small covered shelter and a picnic table.
By the time I arrived the parking spaces were filled and people were starting to park along the busy highway. I found the last space at the edge of the highway available, grabbed my camera bag, and darted toward the overlook as fast as I could. Just three minutes later the Santa Train began crossing the trestle. The engineer always slows the train so people can snap a few photos and shoot some video. Santa climbs out on the back of the train and waves to the people below. I’m not a fan of heights, but one day I would really love to know what it’s like to stand on the back of that train five hundred feet above the ground crossing the bridge looking at the tiny humans below.
I only had one stop left for the day. It would be the easiest to find but the longest walk. The Santa Train made two more stops before reaching Kingsport, but I had no idea where those stops were located. So I hustled down Highway 23 into Kingsport, drove downtown, and parked at the Food City parking lot beside the farmers market. This was a really great place to park, but it was a five block walk to the end of Broad Street where the train would arrive at the old train station (which is now a Citizens Bank).
Kingsport goes all out for this event. The Christmas parade is timed to begin the moment Santa arrives on the train, so he basically hops off, greets the crowd, throws out a few gifts, then hops onto the firetruck to enter the end of the parade. There was an enormous crowd gathered at the Citizens Bank, but I don’t know if they were waiting for Santa Claus or Amy Grant to arrive. She was the celebrity guest of the year, and sang a couple of songs once she climbed onto the makeshift stage. She joined Santa throwing out pounds of candy and a few dozen plush animals before everything started to run out. Bands from the parade thumped on the street behind the crowd, the Shriner’s motorcycles were rumbling, and firetrucks were tooting their horns. The crowd thinned out, the celebrities disappeared, and I found myself standing almost alone as another year of the Santa Train had come and gone too quickly.
This train was as much a part of my childhood Christmas experience as the holiday itself. Ten years in a row my family would take the five of us on this crazy adventure, collecting enough candy to put Halloween to shame, grabbing enough wrapping paper to make the difference in maybe one or two extra gifts my parents could buy. We were the very demographic sought out by the original founders of the Santa Train. You see, this isn’t just some publicity stunt or annual event for the sake of an event. It was started as a way to get food, clothing, and toys into the poor coal camps of Kentucky, Southwest Virginia, and Northeast Tennessee. Although it has grown in popularity more each year that attracts more non-residents to the towns, it still holds the same basic value: help those who otherwise may not have had a Christmas. It helped my family have Christmas each year, it made it just a little bigger and little happier, and it was the greatest of all our family traditions. Will you make this a new tradition for your family?