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.
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.
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.