KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – Not long ago, The Santa Train was on life support.
The Appalachian Christmas tradition began on November 27, 1943. Wars, economic recessions and the deaths of all its founders couldn’t stop an army of volunteers from loading a train with Christmas gifts and giving them all away to families in small towns along the 100-mile-long railroad parade route through three states.
But two years of cancellations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a third-year cancellation announced last summer blamed on supply chain and labor shortages left many worried that Santa never again would take his place on the back of the train for a trip from Southeast Kentucky through Southwest Virginia into Northeast Tennessee.
But in late September, something changed.
“We got a call from CSX (the railroad owner and primary organizer of the Santa Train) saying there was a significant announcement coming about this year’s Santa Train,” said Miles Burdine, President and CEO of the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, a key local sponsor and organizer of The Santa Train. “When they said, ‘The Train will happen this year,’ you could hear everyone on the call yelling for joy. It was a huge and wonderful surprise.”
What changed? As far as anyone in Kingsport can tell, it all came down to a decision by CSX management to make the 80th running of The Santa Train happen, despite some formidable challenges.
CSX management gives credit to the railroad’s employees and their commitment to carrying on the Christmas tradition of saying “thank you” to the communities who live along its tracks.
“All the employees of CSX came together and found the solution to be able to confidently run the Santa Train while at the same time playing the important role we play in the nation’s economy,” said Bryan Tucker, Vice-President of Corporate Communications at CSX.
Planning for The Santa Train typically takes about 10 months, organizers say. This year, they had about two months to make it happen.
Despite the time crunch, they say tons of toys, books, clothes and food will be loaded and ready for distribution because key sponsors like Food City, who already were planning for a third year of drive-through distributions at grocery store parking lots along the train route.
“We’d been preparing for months to do something for our communities, so we have most of the items collected to give away along the route,” said Raymond Stockard, manager of Food City on Eastman Road and honorary “chairman” of the Santa Train. “We’re ready to go, and we’re determined to do it right.”
The 80th Santa Train will leave CSX’s Shelby Yard near Pikeville, Kentucky before dawn on Saturday, Nov. 19.
News Channel 11 will be on The Santa Train and will produce a 1-hour special report.
“The Santa Train: Celebrating 80 Years” will air on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, Nov. 24 from 7-8 p.m. on WJHL-TV News Channel 11 and ABC Tri-Cities and will stream live on WJHL.com.