The Santa Train kicks off the holidays each year with a fun, festive crowd and an inspiration for giving. (Photo by Ed Rode)

By DONNA REA

Special to the H&T

On Saturday, Nov. 17, The Santa Train completed its 76th journey. The goal is to bring as much Christmas joy to as many people as possible, along the 110-mile route.  The train makes 14 scheduled stops each year. Volunteers get off the train at each stop to deliver gifts to the waiting hands of children.

Nearly 20 tons of gifts, including toys, coats, socks, hats and food, are distributed through the crowds at each stop. Color-coded back packs let the volunteers know if the bag is packed for a boy or girl, and the age of the child the bag will be given to.

This annual trip is referred to as a tradition.  But, to coal mining families between Shelby, Kentucky and Kingsport, it has become an important part of their Christmas. Grandparents who received gifts from the train as children have been back to the tracks year after year, bringing their children and grandchildren to experience The Santa Train. People who live near the scheduled stops always know what time they can expect the train to arrive.  They line up early at the Shelby rail yard, where gifts are given out before the train begins its journey.   Stops are then made at Marrowbone, Elkhorn City, Kyentucky, and Toms Bottom, Haysi, Clinchco, Fremont, Dante and St. Paul, Va., before ending the journey in Kingsport.

Don Royston, from Kingsport, did his job as Santa for the 20th consecutive year. “Over the past 20 years, one of the things that sticks in my mind would be the tradition that continues each year. Families with three and four generations show up each year,” he said.  None of this could happen without the hard work and dedication of the sponsors, he said.  “The sponsors and volunteers make all of this possible. It is a real blessing for the people communities,” Don said.

A friend of Santa’s, Jim Stouffer from Johnson City, made small wooden trucks for the children. Santa said, “A special memory from this year is a boy about 6-years-old who was standing directly behind the train, among the thousands of others. I handed one of the handmade wooden toys down to him.  This big grin appeared on his face. He was straddling the track rail, and promptly sat down on the rail. For the next 10 minutes, he ran the truck up and down the rail.  He had his new favorite toy and was totally in his own world. He had no interest in the other people or toys being tossed over his head.  One toy was enough”.

Each year, a special guest joins Santa on the train as it makes its journey.  In previous years, Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Wynonna and Naomi Judd, Amy Grant, Thompson Square, Darryl Worley and last year, Ricky Skaggs, have been onboard. 

This year, country duo Maddie and Tae were the special guests.  Maddie and Tae broke into the country music scene in 2013, with their No. 1 hit, Girl In A Country Song”. They are only the third female duo in 70 years to top the country airplay charts and have earned Country Music Association and Disney Radio Music awards.  They have also been nominated many times for awards from the Academy of Country Music, Country Music Association, and Country Music Television awards.

The special guests are not just there to go along for the ride, at most stops they join Santa at the back of the train to toss gifts to the children in the crowd.  They also got off the train at a few stops, to meet the people and distribute gifts at the stops.

Maddie and Tae said their manager received an email about The Santa Train.  And they were excited to learn more about it.  This was their first experience on the Santa Train, and Tae said that wasn’t really what they expected, but that she meant that “in the best way.”

Tae said that they both really enjoy giving back, especially at Christmas.  “This gave us the perfect opportunity to do that.“ she said.  “It is an honor to be included, and really great to see firsthand how many people are working together to give back to the communities along the train’s route,” Maddie said.

Maddie really summed up their experience when she said,  “The day has been awesome.”

This really was their first train trip of any kind. Tae said she remembers being on a train in Branson once, but it was a very long time ago.  Maddie said she had never ridden on a train, but did tell us that the motion of the moving train was very much like riding in a tour bus, so they were both used to that.

An event like this will create lifelong memories for the girls.  When asked what their favorite part of the day was, Maddie said, “My favorite part of today was whenever I was throwing a toy to a particular kid, that you could tell they really, really wanted the little toy.  It would take me a couple of tries to make it to that particular kid, but when they caught it, the look on their face was priceless”.

For Tae, her favorite part was “hearing the kids yelling ‘Santa, Santa!’”.  “It was their excitement.  They feel special”.

When the train returned to Kingsport, Maddie an Tae did a short concert for a large crowd that gathered at Santa’s Depot.

Leslie Higgins, Manager of Crisis & Event Planning for CSX, organizes the Santa Train. During an interview on the train, she said CSX is proud of this tradition, and realizes that the gift they get from The Santa Train may be the only gift they receive for Christmas.

Soles4Souls, based in Nashville, participated for the second year.  They donated 5,000 coats, baby bibs, hats and socks which were distributed this year.  “We plan on staying involved with this project as long as CSX needs us,” Buddy said. “Our organization is committed to helping people,” he said.

Sponsors of the train this year were CSX, Food City, Appalachian Power, Soles4Souls, and the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce.