(WJHL) – For residents of Eastern Kentucky, Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, the Santa Train has run for the vast majority of living memory. But how did it begin?
The Beginning: 1943
The story of the Santa Train begins in 1943, when the United States and its allies were engaged in the largest conflict the world had ever seen. Around that time, Japanese forces had attacked the Philippines, and Allied efforts to fight back against Axis invasions were nowhere near the successes they’d hoped.
“There was a lot of morale issues,” said Ron Flanary, historian and former director of LENOWISCO. “What can you do? Well, you can find something to smile about.”
For Appalachia, some of those smiles rode in on the Santa Train. The region was still firmly coal country at the time, and most mining towns spent their earnings in Kingsport and Johnson City for holiday shopping. The initial idea for the ride was born out of the simple desire to give back to hardworking communities in the mountains.
“It’s not a charity case,” Flanary said. “People come away with that mistaken impression if they just see it and they’re not aware of the background.”
Coal made up much of the country’s industrial backbone and helped fuel the American war machine. Rail lines in the region carried coal, passengers and cargo to the benefit of the world, and Flanary said the gift of a smile was a small repayment for the labor that helped get it there.
Before the creation of the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, some of the area’s big names in business got together during Kingsport Merchants Association meetings. It was during one of those meetings that the earliest version of the Santa Train, the Santa Clause Special, was born.
“For all of those reasons,” Flanary said. “They thought: why don’t we put one of our fattest guys in a Santa suit and put him in the rear of the regular passenger train and try to do something worthwhile and positive.”
Enter Joe Higgins, the Santa Train’s first Santa Claus. While his physical size may have won him the role, his impact on the community left a more lasting impression.
“That’s all it was,” Flanary said. “It was a very genuine, humanitarian effort. It had the right effect, so much so that they decided to replicate it every year.”
The Santa Train’s past looked very different from today’s highly-scheduled stops at specific towns and crossings. In fact, the Santa Train didn’t stop at all until the 2000s. Candy was thrown from the back of a regular passenger route as Higgins and his successors waved to nearby crowds.
“They’re rolling and throwing,” Flanary said. “Just throw stuff off en route. They’d throw off tons of stuff to these people en route, and then the people would descend on the tracks just like a giant vacuum cleaner and pick everything up.”
No major injuries were ever reported in connection to the Santa Train or Santa Claus Special, but the policy changed in the early 2000s in the interest of safety.
“I think that there was a consensus that it was not a good thing,” Flanary said. “It was dangerous. It was dangerous for people to just be up and down the tracks in just random locations.”
Taking Shape: ’43-’55
Between 1942 and 1955, the Santa Train was part of the regular Clinchfield Railroad passenger service that ran throughout Appalachia. After ’55 the Santa Train became a special route that ran for Kris Kringle himself.
“Usually they would have one locomotive in Elkhorn City,” Flanary said. “Then they would have three or four what they call ‘hot’ cars, traffic that had to go. They would have a locomotive that provided steam heat to Car 100, then at the rear they would have Car 100. And that was the Santa Train.”
While it was well-known to locals, the Santa Train was far from ubiquitous anywhere else.
“It was a regional thing, a regional curiosity,” Flanary said. “But it picked up considerable momentum in 1968 when they restored a local steam locomotive and used that. And this brought out more railroad enthusiasts and brought a little more attention to it.”
The Santa Train’s big break was in 1982 when journalist Charles Kuralt brought the region’s story to the entire nation during an “On the Road” special.
“That’s when it became a big deal,” Flanary said. “And it remains a big deal to this year.”
Santa Train Today: 80 Years In
A more recognizable version of the Santa Train began to form after the turn of the century. Stops were added throughout the years, and families were allowed to flock onto the crossing for a closer interaction with Santa and celebrity guests.
In 2022, the Santa Train’s return was uncertain. A pandemic and historic supply chain issues shut it down in 2020 and 2021, and drive-thru gift exchanges that served as a last resort were canceled. To bring it back for its 80th anniversary, CSX rail administrators knew it would be a challenge.
“It’s an expensive item. You’ve got not only the equipment, you’ve got the care that goes with that, the crew expense, the disruption to revenue traffic,” Flanary said. “Because you’re inviting the masses to come and gather around railroad infrastructure.”
Flanary said pushes to end the program have ebbed and flowed since the 60s. Still, the Santa Train persists.
“COVID would have been a perfect reason to stop it,” Flanary said. “And say ‘this has been great but it’s over.'”
Instead, the train is running again and is continuing to chug its way to a century of operation.