Country duo Maddie & Tae will be Santa’s special guest on the train, which is sponsored by CSX, Food City, Appalachian Power, Soles4Souls and the Kingsport Chamber.
The award-winning duo’s breakout hit came in 2013 with their platinum-selling No. 1 “Girl In A Country Song.” Their new single, “Friends Don’t,” which “Rolling Stone” magazine described as “anchored around their stellar vocal pairings and some of the tightest harmonies on Music Row,” is giving fans a taste of what to expect from their forthcoming sophomore album.
Maddie & Tae will help Santa distribute an estimated 15 tons of toys, food, warm clothing and other gifts to thousands of people at stops along the rail route the Santa Train has followed each year since 1943. After the train arrives in Kingsport, the duo, joined by Santa, will disembark from the train and head to the Santa’s Depot Stage for a special performance. As in previous years, there will be an area designated for children with special needs to make sure they get a good view.
Santa himself may be the main attraction for thousands of folks who turn out to greet the Santa Train each year. But a fair amount of the crowd shows up along the 110-mile route to see the train — especially the highly polished passenger cars, many with ties to history, and all reminders of a bygone era when rail travel was commonplace. Some of the cars you’ll see as part of this year’s Santa Train:
• The North Carolina. This car was constructed in 1915 by the Pullman Company available for lease under the name Manhattan. In 1950, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad purchased the car and rebuilt it into a three-bedroom business car at the Emerson shop in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. The car was named the North Carolina in 1984 and underwent extensive restoration in 1999. The interior was reconfigured to two one-bedroom suites.
• The Baltimore. Used by President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush during his Whistlestop Tour, the Baltimore also was used by President Bill Clinton’s campaign. It entered service in 1924 when the Pullman Company delivered it to Seaboard Air Line Railroad and was first used by Seaboard President Davies Warfield, an uncle of the Duchess of Windsor — American socialite Wallis Warfield Simpson, who grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and for whom King Edward VIII abdicated the British throne in order to marry.
• New York Central. Leased from the Railroad Historical Society for the 2018 Santa Train, the New York Central (it’ll be the silver one, rather than the dark blue of CSX cars) is a full-length tavern lounge car with seating and a small kitchen.
• The Tennessee. A former Southern Railway 52-seat coach, it was built in 1958 by Pullman and named Southerner. CSX purchased it in 2008 and converted it into a café, lounge, and diner at the Waycross Coach Shop. The car was renamed Tennessee and first placed in service in the 2008 Kentucky Derby special. Its interior was constructed to simulate a previously owned tavern/lounge L&N car 3001, built by ACF in 1946, with a distinctive full service beverage station in the center of the car.
• The Ohio. Built by Budd in 1948 as a diner/theater car with seating for 52, the Ohio was the dining section of a twin-unit diner set that coupled with a lunch counter/kitchen/crew car for the built but never operated Chessie daylight streamliner planned to operate between Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati. CSX purchased the car in 2008 and Waycross Coach Shop refurbished the diner, which CSX renamed and numbered.
• The Louisiana. Built in 1917 by the Pullman Company, the car was first used as a post office baggage car. It was one of three in the series that was rebuilt in the early 1950s with a turtleback roof. Later, the car was dedicated to maintenance-of-way service under ACL, SCL, SBD and finally CSX. Its last maintenance-of-way assignment was in Lakeland, Florida, for use as a cable car. This car is now used as support for storage and as a commissary for events like the Santa Train.
• The New York. Originally a 1925 Pullman-built parlor observation car with a drawing room created for service on New York Central’s Empire State Express, this dining car was renamed the Hudson River and served the Empire State Express in the early 1930s. The large rear platform was constructed to accommodate President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wheelchair. It was renamed Kalamazoo River in 1942 and served the Twilight Limited, then renamed Victoria Park in 1947 and used in special service. In 1952, it was converted to track inspection car No. 30 and renumbered 76 by Penn Central in 1976. The car was part of the funeral train for slain presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. Changed to No. 10 by Conrail in 1977, the New York is now part of CSX’s fleet.
• The Illinois. This former CSX 350 was built by the St. Louis Car Co. in 1953. During its lifetime, it has served as an Operation Lifesaver car, Chessie Steam Special car, dormitory car for the West Virginia Railroad Maintenance Authority and as a U.S. Army Ambulance Unit Car.
• The West Virginia. This is Santa’s car. Built as an Army hospital car in 1953 by the St. Louis Car Co., the 310 has a small lounge, two roomette-style sleeping rooms and a large, open room. For all but two days a year, the West Virginia serves as a conference/reception car. The weekend before Thanksgiving, the West Virginia is transformed into Santa’s “sleigh.”
Items distributed by Santa and his helpers come from donations nationwide each year — from individuals, groups and businesses.
Each year, thousands of people — including families for whom a visit to the train is a multigenerational tradition — turn out at stops along the way, regardless of the weather.
Much of the train’s journey winds through the countryside not far from one road or another, offering motorists there a little look at what used to be a common sight in the region: a train that includes passenger cars. If you can’t make it elsewhere on the train’s route and just want a glimpse of history, a quintessential spot to view the train or snap a photo is where the Santa Train crosses the Copper Creek Viaduct, visible from U.S. Highway 23 about 15 miles north of Kingsport. If the train’s running on schedule Saturday — and it usually does — it will cross the viaduct sometime between 1 p.m. and 1:50 p.m.
Weather forecasts for points along the train's route on Saturday call for highs in the 50s with sunny skies.
Gifts are distributed only when the train is stopped. Nothing is thrown from the train while it is in motion. The only things tossed from the rear of the train are small, soft, plush toys. Everything else is handed out by “ground crew” volunteers who get off the train and spread throughout the crowds at each stop.
The times for this year’s stops are: Shelby, 5:45 a.m; Marrowbone, 6:20 a.m.; Elkhorn City, 7:05 a.m.; Toms Bottom, 7:45 a.m.; Haysi, 8:07 a.m.; Clinchco, 8:40 a.m.; Fremont, 9:08 a.m.; Dante, 10:08 a.m.; St. Paul, 10:53 a.m.; Dungannon, 12:03 p.m.; Fort Blackmore, 12:48 p.m.; Kermit, 1:48 p.m.; Waycross, 2:20 p.m.
The train arrives in downtown Kingsport at 2:58 p.m. Gifts are not distributed from the train in Kingsport, the only stop where Santa gets off the train, as the center of action is “Santa’s Depot” at Centennial Park from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Santa and Maddie & Tae will take to the Santa’s Depot stage for a special performance at about 3:30 p.m.
“Santa’s Depot will be a magical experience for families and their children again this year,” said Amy Margaret McColl, Santa’s Depot co-coordinator. “Thanks to our generous sponsors, we added even more activities to the event.”
Children will receive an official “Santa’s Depot” activity passport at one of two welcome tents when they arrive at the event. Sponsored booths include activities such as writing cards for soldiers deployed abroad, cookie decorating, making magical reindeer food and more. Inflatables, a kid’s-size train ride and holiday airbrush tattoos will be on-site and complimentary to children.
Attendees will also have the opportunity to experience the magic of live reindeer, thanks to community partner Domtar. Santa’s Depot serves as the official site to create and drop-off letters to Santa. Children are invited to write their letters on-site and place them in a large red mailbox, which will be retrieved by Santa after his arrival.