The tradition began in 1942, when a group of Kingsport businessmen decided to do something special for its neighbors and patrons to the north in the Virginia coalfields. The Kingsport Merchants’ Bureau, predecessor to today’s chamber, solicited donations of candy from area stores. One of the volunteers dressed as Santa and joined fellow merchants as they tossed hard candy from the rear vestibule of Clinchfield’s regular southbound passenger local No. 38 on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Scheduled passenger service ended in 1954, but the “Clinch” obligingly kept the Santa train running, by tacking office car 100 behind its only FP7, No. 200.
A new Clinchfield general manager, arrived in 1968, and ordered the shop to restore an 1882-built 4-6-0 No. 1, which was rusting behind the coach shed.
The resurrected Ten-Wheeler pulled that year’s Santa Claus Special and thrust this unique operation onto a higher level of public exposure. Mechanical problems forced the No. 1's, second retirement in 1979, but the Clinch kept running the Santa train.
Charles Kuralt, the late television journalist, covered the train in 1982, the last year it would be a true Clinchfield operation before successors absorbed the railroad. National coverage on CBS did more to bring attention to the Santa train than anything in its past. Those were the early days of CSX, and executives realized they had a winner for attracting positive press. A front-page story in The New York Times also generated money and donations from all over the country, a pattern that continues to this day. It was no longer necessary for the merchants of Kingsport to rely exclusively on local donations, as assistance from companies, celebrities, and generous individuals came pouring in.
CSX approached the Kingsport Chamber in the mid-’90s and suggested making additional stops. Chamber leaders understood, and in 2001 the Santa train added five stops so all the candy, stuffed animals, wrapping paper, homemade mittens, and nearly anything else you can imagine toward the outstretched hands and upturned faces while the train was standing still. Since then, the number of stops has increased to 15.
Everybody works on the Santa train, taking turns on the “chain gang” tossing goodies from the observation platform, or for the media, getting the story. After dispensing gifts and candy to thousands of children and their parents along the 110-mile route, the train arrives at Kingsport in time for Santa to ride a city fire truck in the annual Christmas parade.
For certain, it’s an expensive operation for CSX, but local personnel pull it off each year without a hitch, so costs and disruption to normal operations are manageable, with corridor managers minimizing traffic on the day the Santa train operates.
Full story and more photos at http://trn.trains.com/bonus/santa thanks to David!