World War II was still raging when the Santa Train made its first journey from Pikeville, Ky. to Kingsport in 1943. That’s how long the little holiday train that could has been warming hearts and bringing smiles the faces of countless people along its route.
While much has changed in the world over the last 77 years, little is different about the iconic Santa Train which makes its 110-mile journey through parts of three states, including Virginia, every year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. One of the region’s most anticipated holiday traditions, it will once again brighten the lives of thousands of children this year on Nov. 23 as it rolls through 14 stops, carrying Santa on the way to its final destination in Kingsport.
A couple of gentlemen from Kingsport – Flem Dobyns of Dobyns-Taylor Hardware Store and Bill Waddell of the Kingsport Times-News – came up with the idea for the Santa Train, which was originally dubbed “The Santa Special” in 1943. It is said that Dobyns wanted to thank the folks in the region who traveled through the mountains to buy products from his store, thus giving birth to one of the region’s most cherished traditions.
Each year, the Santa Train distributes more than 15 tons and $300,00 worth of clothing, food, candy, toys, and gifts to thousands of people along its route. The Santa Train Scholarship, a four-year, $5,000 scholarship that started in 1989 and is based on financial need, academic achievement and teacher and guidance counselor recommendations, is also given annually to a graduating high school senior who attends school near the train’s route.
On this one special day, Santa trades in his sleigh for a train and makes the trip too, much to the delight of the thousands of children and family members who stand patiently by, waiting for the beloved locomotive to come through their town.
And it’s not just the goodies they come for – there has almost always been a celebrity aboard the train, a good many of them country music stars. Ricky Skaggs, Wynonna, Travis Tritt, Allison Kraus, Patty Loveless, and Amy Grant are just a few who have ridden the Santa Train. This year’s special guest is Marty Stuart.
Santa’s Depot is the latest addition to the Santa Train magic. On Saturday, Nov. 23 from 1-4 p.m. Centennial Park will come alive with Christmas cheer, which includes a variety of free activities for kids, such as writing letters to Santa.
Put it all together and the Santa Train, which will arrive around 3 p.m., and Santa’s Depot amount to a one-of-a-kind holiday celebration that has its roots planted firmly and proudly in Kingsport!