Get ready for the Santa Train

Posted by | November 17, 2015

In 1943, a group of Kingsport, TN businessmen wanted to do something special for their neighbors in Southwest Virginia to thank them for their patronage. Flem Dobyns of Dobyns-Taylor Hardware Store and Bill Waddell of the Kingsport Times-News came up with the idea of having a special Christmas themed Clinchfield Railroad train head out of Kingsport, on up through Southwest Virginia, to the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky. In Pikeville, KY the train would pick up Santa Claus, then circle back to Kingsport, distributing candy and gifts to needy families along the way.

They talked with Clinchfield Railroad officials, whose 277-mile line was completed in 1915 and extended up from Spartanburg, SC, to connect with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway at Elkhorn City, KY.

The Santa Train, of Kingsport TN

The Santa Train, of Kingsport TN, in an undated photo.

Kingsport, with all its industries, was an important point on the Clinchfield route; the railroad officials saw the public relations value immediately and were only too glad to cooperate with the Kingsport group.

And so each year since 1943, on the weekend before Thanksgiving, the Santa Claus Special (or just the “Santa Train”) has departed from Kingsport, TN, arriving in Pikeville, KY to bring Santa back to Kingsport. Santa arrives just in time to enter the first parade of the season, kicking off the holiday shopping spree.

The Santa Claus Special was made possible through the hard work and commitment of many people, including Joe Higgins, who was the very first Santa Claus on the Santa Train; John Dudney, who not only played Santa for many years, but also helped distribute Santa Special posters in the communities along the tracks two weeks prior to the run; A.B. Coleman, the first president of the Merchants Bureau (the forerunner to the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce); Raymond Gaylon, who worked at Oakwood Market (a local grocery store) and coordinated the gathering of items to be thrown from the train as well as helping John Dudney distribute the posters; and E. B. “Jitney” Blankenbecler of Franklin Press, who mixed hard candy in a box car during the train trip, often until his fingers were raw.

It’s clear that landing the role of Santa is a plum job; through the 70 years the Santa Special has been running, the position has changed hands only 4 times: Joe Higgins (1943 – 1950), John Dudney (1950 – 1983), Frank Brogden (1984 – 2002) and Don Royston (2000 – present).

John Dudney said his biggest reward serving as Santa Claus for 38 years was looking into the faces of children along the railroad and seeing the wonder in their eyes as he called out over the sound system, “Merry Christmas girls and boys, ole Santa sees you.”

On the first trip, money from the Merchants Bureau Fund provided the hard wrapped candy that was thrown from the train. In subsequent years, gifts were solicited by Raymond Gaylon. Ed Moore of Food City continues that tradition today. In addition to candy, the train has distributed notebook pads specially made by Mead (now Willamette Industries); hand-made dolls by “the doll lady,” Lois Mee; clothes; pretzels; stuffed animals; small toys; three-ringed binders and pencils from Eastman; and basketball. The Kingsport Chamber now receives toys, clothes and gifts from individuals, businesses and organizations across the country.

Santa Claus with kids on the Santa Train

Newspaper source not indicated. The original caption in this undated photo reads: Thrill of a lifetime was reserved for these youngsters who rode the same train to Kingsport as Santa. Here he is shown with Betty Tampa, 12, Mary Ruth Hartsock, 3, and Peggy Joyce, 5, all of Dante, VA. In background is Flora Esther Kelly, 5, of Wakenva, VA.

The Santa Train is a time-honored tradition for many in the region. Former Kingsport mayor E.B. “Jitney” Blankenbecler only missed the first one because he was serving in WWII, but he rode from 1944-1995. During his life, he told about the first Santa Trains and how they were made on regularly scheduled passenger trains until those were discontinued in 1955. Charlotte Nickels, a nonagenarian retired school teacher from Dungannon, Va., has not missed seeing the train since it began in 1943. For Nickels and many others, the train is a family tradition.

CSX Transportation donates personnel, equipment and track time to support this tradition. Staff are stationed at scheduled stops for safety control and CSXT also provides the buses that transport volunteers to and from the motel in Pikeville during the trip. Each year, the equipment is sent from Jacksonville, FL, for the trek.

For the 50th running of the Santa Train in 1992, CSXT arranged for the “Challenger,” the world’s largest operating steam locomotive, to power the trek through the mountains. Hall of Fame sports broadcaster Joe Garagiola was a passenger on the train that year and broadcast the Santa Train on NBC television Christmas morning.

Logistics for successfully distributing the 15 tons of goodies, toys and gifts requires the efforts of 36 volunteers from Kingsport, who go each year along with railroad staff. On the Wednesday before the train departs, volunteers gather in front of Food City in Kingsport to mix all the donated items into bins for distribution from the train.

The train, filled with excited volunteers, guests and media, leaves Kingsport tracks on Friday, heading for Pikeville, KY, to be in position for the southbound run the following day. Leaving Pikeville early Saturday morning, the Santa Train makes 13 scheduled stops and travels through 29 towns in Kentucky and Southwest Virginia distributing gifts and goodwill along the route.

The Santa Claus Special is the world’s largest Santa Parade, 110 miles, and is a joint effort of the Kingsport Tennessee Area Chamber of Commerce, CSX Transportation (successor to the Clinchfield RR), and Food City, Kingsport, TN.

More info on the Santa Train at the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce Facebook page.

8 Responses

  • Gerald Looney says:

    I was born and raised in Elkhorn City, Kentucky and was one of those kids in the 1940’s that greeted the Santa train as it started its journey from Elkhorn City. My parents ran the only restaurant in Elkhorn so the railroad employees ate their meals at the White Star restaurat and we knew them all by their first names. I made many many trips on the old Clinchfield RR as my grandfather was one of the engineers driving the train and we would travel to the end of the line at Spartanburg to visit with my fathers older sister. First activity upon arrival was to take a bath as my eyes and hair would be full of cinders. Sometimes we would stop and stay in Erwin Tennessee as that is where my mothers parents lived and was also the HQ of the Clinchfield. I can vividly remember traveling to Erwin and Spartanburg during the WW2 years and many times would go visit the “mail car” that was part of the train and talking with the USPS employees. Excitement came at each small town that had a post office with the delivery and pick up of the mail without stopping the train. For a 8-9 year old boy this was a real thrill.

  • I was raised in elkhorn city also,i remember good food at the white star.I have lots of memories of getting up early in the morning and going to the old depot to see santa and get toys and candy.daddy woud drive real fast to get to east end so we could see him again.Memories of living in elkhorn are still vivid in my mind.i pray your family is well.

  • […] a lovely story so I thought I’d share the link to history of the event. See below. Photo from […]

  • Julie Corwin says:

    The Santa on the train for many years was my godfather and our closest family friend. There was an article in People Magazine many years ago featuring him. He is still alive and well at age 85.

  • […] decided to each buy a gift to give to a needy child.  We were going to send the gifts to the real gift train, but in the end the kids decided they would rather help a child in our own community.  So, with […]

  • Bill says:

    Every time I read anything about the Santa Train, I become saddened. I never saw the train, but was reared in SW Virginia along the N&W Railway and experiened the hardships of being poor and knowing those who were. A wonderful tradition to bring some joy to the children who are so needy.

  • Tammy says:

    Enjoyed reading this article and the comments. My Dad grew up in Elkhorn KY and talked about seeing the train when he was a boy. My grandmother worked in s restaurant in Elkhorn- possibly the White Star on the 40s to 50s.

  • Amy Phillips says:

    I grew up in and still live in southwest va . We lived right in front of the train tracks and every year we looked forward to seeing the train . We was not poor or needy by no means neither was half the people at the train each year . It was just fun and exciting to watch as a kid and if we was lucky get a small gift , a moon pie or even a roll of wrapping paper ! What I did see and I bet If I went this morning I would still see , people from all over the place that ran the trains entire route . Adults ! That would knock over every kid in site and run over the other adults even to get whatever they could ! That is one thing that I hated about the train was the lack of maturity by the outsiders and even the locals ! It is for the kids so let the kids enjoy it and stay at your designated location and give other kids a chance to see the train and leave a great experience!

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