For 75 years the Santa Train has been bringing cheer to the mountains of southeast Kentucky, southwest Virginia, and northeast Tennessee. Started by the Clinchfield Railroad in 1943, it has continued in the post-merger world under CSX. The 2017 edition was sponsored by CSX, the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, Food City, Appalachian Power, and Souls4Soles. The train makes several stops between Shelby, Ky., and Kingsport, Tenn., with Santa and his helpers throwing off literally tons of Christmas gifts at each stop.
For the 75th running of the train, CSX wanted to do something special. In recent years, standard CSX freight power has led the train. But this year, CSX arranged for F3 No. 800, the first diesel ever purchased by the Clinchfield, to lead. In addition, Seaboard Coast Line SD45 2024, now owned by the Southern Appalachia Railway Museum in Oak Ridge, Tenn., was re-lettered as “Clinchfield 3632” to assist. (In real life, the Clinchfield purchased seven SD45s from SCL in 1977, Nos. 3625–3631; the 2024 was given the next highest number in the series.)
The entire project of bringing these historic locomotives to the Santa Train was marshaled by CSX’s Eric Hendrickson, director of network planning. The idea to have the 800 lead the train came to him after CSX agreed to repaint the unit following its 2014 appearance at the Streamliners at Spencer event in North Carolina (where it appeared as Chesapeake & Ohio no. 8016) back to its Clinchfield colors. “At that time, it was thought we would only repaint the 800,” says Hendrickson, “but eventually, working through various safety and legal issues, we were approved to have it on the train, and then lead the train.”
The crowd waits to greet Santa as the train eases to a stop at Fort Blackmore, Va. Everyone will gather around the rear platform of the observation car once the train clears the crossing, and volunteers will distribute gifts. Steve Barry photo
The F3, which had been rebuilt by the Clinchfield to F7 standards and classified as an F5, went to CSX’s Huntington (W.Va.) Locomotive Shop, where historian and author Ron Flanary assisted in making an accurate representation. Flanary had first thought of getting the 800 on the point of the 75th Santa Train shortly after the 2016 Santa Train ran. “It turned out there had been some discussion that year about using the ex-SCL SD45 on the train, re-lettered Clinchfield 3632, and the idea of restoring the 800 had already been kicked around seriously,” says Flanary.
“Around February 2017, I was contacted by Brian Gessel, one of the employees at CSX’s Huntington Locomotive Shop. Brian is a supervisor in the paint shop, and he had played a key role in the repainting of C&O 8272, the Chessie System B30-7 that ended up going home to Erie, Pa. In short, he was a pro, and obviously knew what he was doing.
“With the assistance of some other friends, we tracked down an EMD paint diagram for Clinchfield’s first F-units at the NMRA Library in Chattanooga. This was a huge start, but we then learned the old paint specs would not translatable into modern paint terms. I went through dozens of images of freshly-painted Clinchfield units to decide on Pantone colors for both the gray and yellow. Brian then used those to secure a matching mix from CSX’s paint supplier.
Looking right at home with its 1970s-era yellow number boards, former Seaboard Coast Line SD45 2024 sports its Clinchfield look as it exits a tunnel north of Clinchport, Va., on November 17. Steve Barry photo
“Additional discussions included the interior color, and the correct color of the upholstery on the cab seats. On that point I contacted a few long-retired CRR engineers I knew in Erwin. The unanimous consensus — dark green. One of them added, ‘I should know. My butt sat in them long enough.’”
Next was getting CSX management on board. Says Hendrickson, “Initially, skepticism came from the normal concern of making sure the event can be done safely.” Once the minimal safety concerns were addressed, the executive team was very much hands off, yet supportive of the project. “Cindy Sanborn was the key driver, along with CEO Hunter Harrison. The executive team and local operating team were very helpful in ensuring the photo and special access events were a success, while ensuring the ongoing operation of the railroad was minimally impacted,” Hendrickson explained. “Once I was given approval the field leadership basically told me, ‘It’s all yours now, do what you want.’”
Small details were not overlooked. “After the 800 was okayed by CSX mechanical to move from Spencer to Huntington, Brian and I remained in touch as questions popped up,” relates Flanary. “Richard Jahn had fabricated a replacement reflectorized nose number plate, and Aaron Beaubien assembled a custom Nathan M5 air horn.”
The restored 800 was unveiled at the Huntington Shop on October 25. Flanary says, “After a safety briefing, hard hat, hearing and eye protection, and other precautions, our group was led to the paint shop by shop superintendent Curt Shogren. The 800 was still inside the paint shop. On the walk over, I got butterflies in my stomach. Did I get the colors right? Was the gray too blue, or the yellow too much on the red side? Then the door opened, and there she was — the 800 was just perfect.”
Country music and bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs was the celebrity guest on the 2017 Santa Train. Ricky (far right) checks his camera after shooting the large photo line gathered at a tunnel near Clinchco, Va. The big guy on the far left needs no introduction. Steve Barry photo
After traveling from Huntington to CSX headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla., the 800 was united with the 3632 and brought to Kingsport, Tenn., where media events (including photo opportunities with 3632 leading north from Kingsport to Shelby, Ky.) were held. On November 18, the two units flawlessly powered the CSX Santa Train back to Kingsport. Once done, the train deadheaded on to Jacksonville, with a quick stop at the Toe River Church in Huntdale, N.C.
A long list of people made this special event happen. CSX’s Mark Wallace and his team were the key people behind the scenes ensuring the preparation and handling of the toys, food, and such, including Manager of Stakeholder Events & Crisis Response Leslie Higgins and General Foremen Lyle Preston and Lee Johns. Folks from the Southern Appalachia Railway Museum included Charlie Poling, Scott Lindsey, Mark Regan, Wade White, Aaron Beaubiean, Donna Poling, Ed Bowers, and Kevin Wood. Casey Thomason also assisted with the number boards.
The odds were against something like this happening. But it was all summed up as the Santa Train cleared Copper Creek Viaduct on its way to Kingsport. As the last car left the bridge, the railroad radio came to life as Eric Hendrickson called engineer Tony King on the 800: “We did it, Tony.”
This article appeared in the January 2018 issue of Railfan & Railroad