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Skala: I wish Kearney had a Santa train

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Rail-riding Santa

Santa Claus tosses gifts off the CSX Santa Train to waiting kids of all ages in Appalachia.

Homeowners David and Mary Riggs along with homeowner Jessica Keizer give us an early view of their holiday decorations for the 2022 Holiday Home Tour.

I wish Kearney had a Santa train like the CSX Santa Train.

Every year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Santa stands on the rear platform of a railroad parlor car and tosses gifts and candy to throngs of people for 110 miles from Pikeville, Kentucky, to Kingsport, Tennessee. I was lucky enough to ride the Santa Train 30 years ago.

“If you don’t cry, something’s wrong with you,” Ray Galyon, a Kingsport retiree who helped organize the train, told me as I climbed aboard for the first time in 1992.

Mary Jane Skala

Mary Jane Skala

For 80 years, the CSX Santa Train has wiggled through the Appalachians from Pikeville through the little toe of Virginia and on into Kingsport. The train was launched in 1942 to entice people in the sputtering post-Great-Depression economy to come to Kingsport to shop for Christmas.

I was a Sun News editor in Cleveland back then, but before that I’d spent four years as editor of the Chessie News, the employee publication of what is now CSX Transportation. Now, offered a ride on the Santa Train, I was ecstatic. I left Cleveland before dawn that Friday and drove 465 miles south to Kingsport to be on the train when it left for Pikeville at 3 p.m. The next day at 7 a.m. it would make the return run with Santa.

Thanks to Galyon and others, that train was packed with 15 tons of gifts — dolls, trucks, cars, Moon Pies and candy — and an invitation-only passenger list of chamber members, a few Kingsport notables and others. We became fast friends as we nibbled on Kentucky Fried Chicken. We got to Pikeville around 7. A school bus took us to a motel for the night.

At 6 a.m. Saturday, that school bus returned us to the Shelby Yard near Pikeville. We reboarded and waited. We were as giddy as kids on Christmas morning. Suddenly we heard a booming “ho-ho-ho!” Santa clomped through our car waving his white-gloved hands and hollering, “Merry Christmas!” We erupted in cheers. He made his way back to the parlor car, and our journey began.

That train clickety-clacked through sleepy towns, curved around mountain passes, shouldered the Clinch River, hurried through tunnels and past humble houses. All along the way, blanket-wrapped people and scampering children waited by the tracks. Santa waved and tossed presents out to them as that train sped by.

The train stopped twice, in Elkhorn City, Kentucky, and St. Paul, Virginia, where a crush of people crowded close to the tracks. We were allowed to get off and stretch our legs, but Scott Jesse, the trainmaster, warned us to scramble back on when we heard three whistles or the train would leave without us. Jesse had the toughest job of the day. He had to keep that train on schedule and keep everyone safe. In 80 years, the Santa Train had never had an accident of any kind.

Between Elkhorn City and St. Paul, I rode in the cab with the engineer. Being assigned to the Santa Train was a reward, he told me. Only the best engineers earned that privilege. Later, I went out on the platform car and helped Santa toss candy and Moon Pies to people waiting by the tracks.

All day long, Galyon and others carried gifts from the baggage car out to Santa, emptying out that baggage car. Christmas carols blared on the loudspeaker. My watch said 1 p.m., then 2 p.m., and I wanted it to stop. I didn’t want the ride to end.

I spent the final hour sitting in the open vestibule between two cars as the train crossed from Virginia into Tennessee. I watched cars chase that train, cars jam along crossings and people pointing cameras.

At 3 p.m., the train pulled into Kingsport. Santa climbed down and hopped up on a float and became the grand finale of the city’s Christmas parade. I felt like weeping. That eight-hour adventure was over.

I began the long drive back to Cleveland, but my mind was back on the Santa Train and its joy, its smiles, its selfless giving. Eighty years later, the Santa Train is still going. COVID-19 halted it in 2020 and 2021, but today it’s running again. And Galyon was right. I cried.

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