With the little hand on the “6,” the instant the big hand on the conductor’s Elgin B.W. Raymond railroad-approved pocket watch sweeps to “12,” he steps onto the platform until he can see the engineer. His raised hand means one thing: “highball”! Two blasts on 151’s whistle, and 38 gets underway for her all-day trip to Spartanburg, S.C. It’s a daily occurrence at Elkhorn but as the marker lights of office car 1 recede into the darkness, there’s a passenger on the platform who is anything but routine. A bearded man in a red velvet suit and hat with white fur trim waves to those left standing at the depot as the Pacific’s exhaust picks up cadence. “M-e-e-e-erry Christmas!” A tradition is born.
The idea for the famed Clinchfield Santa Claus Special — which marked its 73rd running this year — came from several volunteer businessmen of the Kingsport Merchants Bureau (predecessor for today’s Kingsport Chamber of Commerce). On that frosty November morning in 1943, Santa Claus (in reality, Joe Higgins—one of only four men to suit up and play Santa for the annual run) and his “helpers” tossed off hard candy to children at every stop along the 94-mile route to Kingsport. At the time, there were more than 30 scheduled and/or conditional stops for train 38.
The tradition continued until regular passenger service ceased in 1954. Also, the items thrown off along the route grew to include books, small stuffed toys, and other items. Thereafter the railroad obligingly (at the urging of management for the huge Tennessee Eastman complex in Kingsport—a major rail customer) continued the annual run using office car 100, FP7 No. 200 to provide steam heat, and four or five “hot” southbound freight loads that might have needed expediting to Kingsport, all pulled by a single F7. But, in 1968, new Clinchfield general manager Tom Moore boldly ordered the restoration to service of an old Ten Wheeler (ex-Black Mountain Railroad No. 1) that was rusting away behind the shop in Erwin, Tenn. For the next ten years the “One Spot” (with a diesel assist from either 200, or one or two F7Bs with steam generators ) would pull the train (and also help power an ambitious excursion operation year round). From 1979 forward, diesels have handled the train each year—with the notable exception of the 50th running on November 21, 1992, when Union Pacific and CSX cooperated in bringing UP’s Challenger 3985 east to pull the train. The Clinchfield had owned six nearly identical versions of the big 4-6-6-4, so for the occasion, the engine was re-lettered as “Clinchfield 676” (one number higher than the last one). The improbable visit of the big engine from Cheyenne is still fondly recalled in Clinchfield Country.
The train has varied in length and consist over the years, and the motive power has included three types of steam (4-6-2, 4-6-0 and 4-6-6-4), F-units, several models of EMD four and six-motor hoods, FP40PHs, and several modern GE wide-nose units. Of course the railroad also changed identities over time, with the Clinchfield becoming a component of Seaboard System beginning in 1983, and CSX Transportation in 1986. The creation of CSX Corp. in 1980 also resulted in closure of the agency at Elkhorn City and extension of the crew district 16 miles north (or railroad “west”) to Shelby, Ky., on former C&O trackage. Since then, the Santa train has originated each year at Shelby.
When the late Charles Kuralt rode the train in 1982, his “On the Road” segment (plus a front page article in the New York Times) kicked off a small flood of donations of cash, toys, clothes and other items (all new—nothing “used” is tossed off at stops). Today, the Santa train fund at the Kingsport Chamber pays for all of the nearly 15 tons of gifts, candy and other items tossed off the rear by Santa and his helpers. Over the last two decades, a number of celebrities (mostly country recording stars), politicians and dignitaries have ridden the train each year. The Chamber also provides an college scholarship annually to a deserving high school senior along the train’s route. And—media coverage of the operation has brought news of this annual phenomenon to people all over the globe.
What began in 1943 as an act of generosity to the people of the Virginia coalfield region served by the Clinchfield Railroad slowly morphed into a tradition of Christmas spirit—and an annual operation that gained international recognition and acclaim. “The World’s Longest Christmas Parade” is making its 73rd trip through the mountains this year, but with CSX’s recent decision to close its yard and shop facilities at Erwin — the old Clinchfield Railroad’s headquarters — and ending through rail service, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over this year’s train. Is this the last ride over the Clinchfield for Santa? Let’s hope not.