Santa Train: lots of history rolling down the tracks

J. H. Osborne • Nov 20, 2019 at 1:51 PM

KINGSPORT — The Santa Train will makes its 77th annual run Saturday. 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, listed from front to back:

• The Crescent Harbor. One of three remaining sleeper/lounge passenger cars built by Pullman for the Southern Railway’s Southern Crescent passenger service, this car was delivered for service circa 1949-50. It plied the rails between New York City and New Orleans during the “golden days” of rail travel. Having been out of service since 1979, Crescent Harbor was recently returned to rail service through a major restoration project by Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society & Museum, from whom it received AAR reporting mark WATX 2351. Crescent Harbor’s two sister cars, while they exist, would require extensive work before they could become roadworthy.

• The Waycross. Built by the Pullman Co. in 1926 as a private car for W.R. Kenan, president of the Federal Election Commission. It was originally lettered “Florida East Coast” and named the Randleigh. In 1943, the car was purchased by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway and used by its executive department for rail inspections. After the creation of CSX, the car was renamed Stonewall Jackson by chief engineer Glenn Michael to commemorate his education at the Virginia Military Institute. The car was later renamed the Washington and was used for events in Washington’s Union Terminal. In 2008, CSX refurbished the car to a three-bedroom business car and renamed it the Waycross. The car is still used for congressional luncheons and holiday reception events in Washington, D.C.

• 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 Co. 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.

• 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 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 Co., 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 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. 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. It has been Santa’s “sleigh” since 1984 for each year’s running of the Santa Train. But this year it is moved back a spot and Santa will be based on the Clinchfield 100.

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 1:45 p.m.