Pennsy Santa train ride: There is an indelible link between kids, trains, and Christmas; even the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad found a way to offer a Santa train ride to kids.
Growing up in 1950s Fort Wayne, Ind., I remember the Pennsylvania Railroad as a prominent player in the city’s life. Also prominent was Fort Wayne’s main department store, Wolf & Dessauer, a six-story downtown building, not unlike other cities’ downtown department stores of the era. After Thanksgiving, it was where Santa “lived.” My memories of their toy department seem as if drawn from the set of “Miracle on 34th Street!” Indeed, the building itself sat on one of downtowns principal corners and in December, on one side was hung a huge lighted Santa’s sleigh and reindeer, while the other side boasted a two-story, lighted wreath. (Thankfully, the displays survived and during today’s holidays are still a prominent and proud display in Fort Wayne.)
In 1956 and 1957, Wolf & Dessauer got together with the Pennsylvania Railroad to sponsor a train, “The Santa Claus Special,” several P70 coaches filled with children and their parents. The route was west from the Baker Street Station, about 20 miles west to Columbia City. There, the locomotives ran around the train and pulled it back to Fort Wayne. Just after leaving the station, the train stopped next to a caboose decked out as the home of a certain North Pole resident. Santa Claus boarded the train and walked its length greeting all the kids as it rolled along at a leisurely 20 or 30 mph. In 1956 my dad took me on “The Special” and, of course, I told Santa I wanted a train! Coincidentally, my first American Flyer trainset magically appeared under the tree that year.
At the end of that Santa train ride, as we slowed to a stop, the conductor announced our trip was over and we should exit the train. The happiness was broken by a loud scream, “NO!” A little girl had somehow missed seeing Santa Claus, suddenly her screams and sobbing filled the coach. Sixty-five years later, I remember being scared. The train stopped, bewildered people stood up, my dad put his hand firmly on my shoulder. Suddenly, the little girl ran the length of the car screaming “SANTA!” Yes, Santa miraculously appeared in the aisle at the far end of the coach. I have no idea if he was alerted to come or if he just stepped out of the restroom, but either way, the day was saved!
Years later, when I discovered my “I rode the…” button in an old box of childhood memorabilia my now-departed mother had foisted on me, the memories flooded back. I pinned the button to the apron I wear at my modeling bench; I wear it almost daily. Each Christmas season, when I hear a recounting of Francis Church’s famous editorial, I will always believe, “Yes Virginia, there IS a Santa Claus…” And on one special day, he rode the Pennsy!