Clinchfield Car 100 to serve again as heart of Santa Train

J. H. Osborne • Nov 18, 2019 at 6:00 PM

KINGSPORT — As the Santa Train makes its 77th trek on Saturday, from Eastern Kentucky through Southwest Virginia and into Northeast Tennessee, Santa Claus will spend the 110-mile, approximately nine-hour trip on the rear platform of the former Clinchfield Railroad car No. 100. That hasn’t happened in more than 35 years.

The historic railcar, owned by the Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society & Museum, has undergone extensive restoration in recent years to return it to its former glory. Between the early 1950s and the early 1980s, Clinchfield Car 100 was Santa's ride each year for the Santa Train.

After CSX purchased the Clinchfield Railroad, it sold the 100 — which had served as the Clinchfield general manager’s office car — as surplus, according to Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society & Museum President Mike Tilley.

The group bought the car six years ago and first focused on the restoration of its exterior to its appearance during its Clinchfield Railroad days.

The group began working on the 108-year-old car’s interior a couple of years ago — but they did not aim for a historic restoration. That would have meant a floor plan containing a parlor-like room, three bedrooms and a dining room, Tilley told the Times-News in 2017.

Instead, the group knocked out partitions that created that configuration in favor of a wide-open floor plan, Tilley said. The main reason for doing so was to make it more usable as a passenger car for excursions.

But there’s another reason for knocking out the walls.

Tilley, a CSX retiree, knows Santa has gotten accustomed to the open floor plan that has made CSX’s “West Virginia” the perfect “sleigh” for Santa since 1984.

The Watauga Valley railroad society members had a dream: to see Car 100 used for the Santa Train’s milestone 75th anniversary run. That didn't happen. But Car 100 was brought to Kingsport for public display when last year's Santa Train rolled into town.

This year, Car 100 will return to service as Santa's car on the Santa Train.

Here’s a brief history of the car, according to information provided by the Watauga Valley railroad society:

• It began its life on the rails in 1911, when the all-steel coach car was built by the Pullman Company for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. It was originally dubbed the ACL 985.

• About 20 years later, it was rebuilt by the ACL’s main passenger shop in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, into a fully operating dining car and renamed the “Orlando.”

• Under that name and use, it ran until 1951 on the ACL’s main line between Washington, D.C., and Miami.

• The car, about 82 feet long and 10 feet wide, could comfortably have seated about 20 people for meal service and card games at its tables. Aside from the dining area and kitchen, the car held three bedrooms.

• In early 1951, Erwin-based Clinchfield Railroad began a search to replace the line’s aging office car.

• In May of that year, CRR purchased the “Orlando,” which had been put out of service by the ACL, and brought it to Erwin to undergo renovations.

• After nearly two years of restoration work, completed under the direction of CRR chief mechanical officer P.O. Likens, the former “Orlando” became CRR’s new office car and was christened Car 100.

• Car 100 had its first test run in August 1953 and first official run three months later when it began service as the official Santa car on the Santa Train — a role it would play until 1983.

• Car 100 was retired and transported to the CSX office in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1983. It was stored at the CSX West Jacksonville Office Car track for the next year, when it was sold to a private party. Car 100 was again sold to Florida resident Bill Beddell around 1985. Ten years after this, Car 100 was moved to the Aberdeen Carolina & Western Railway in North Carolina and was subsequently moved again to the Lancaster & Chester Railroad in Lancaster, South Carolina.

• In July 20, 2013, Car 100 was purchased by the Watauga Valley Railroad Museum in Jonesborough and moved from Lancaster to the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, North Carolina, for restoration. It rolled out of the paint shop on January 14, 2014. CRR 100 has been under a three-year restoration project and is now ready to do what it did for almost 30 years, haul Santa Claus down the Clinchfield.

“In 1968, Mr. T.D. Moore took over the general manager’s job of the Clinchfield Railroad and put new life into Car 100,” Tilley said in a press release on Monday. “Mr. Moore brought back to life the Clinchfield 1 steam locomotive and put together the 14-car excursion fleet. The special excursion train operated from November 1968 to May 1979 hauling passengers over the Clinchfield. Car 100 served as the trail car on many of the trips. Mr. Moore used the car to entertain customers during the excursions and at the CC&O stations in Johnson City and Kingsport.”

On top of its numerous trips to important Clinchfield Railroad locations such as Elkhorn City, Kentucky, and Spartanburg, South Carolina, Car 100 was used to transport folks to the Barter Theater in Abingdon along the Southern Railway and Norfolk & Western. It also made trips to Memphis and Jacksonville, Florida.