Santa Train: A journey of joy in Appalachian coal towns

A crowd gathers around the CSX Santa Train in Fremont, Kentucky. The train takes 14 stops through Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Nov. 21, 2015. 

Karl Schneider

Editor’s note: Members of Kent State’s photojournalism program drove down to Kentucky to follow the Santa Train and speak with the families living along the tracks.

With the sun still hiding deep below the Appalachian mountain horizon, families gathered along rows of frost-covered train tracks in Shelbiana, Kentucky, Saturday. CSX Transportation workers stood ready to place gifts into the glove-covered hands of the children eagerly anticipating the arrival of Santa on the 73rd annual Santa Train.

Each year on the weekend before Thanksgiving, Santa pays a special visit to the children at 14 stops along a mountainous 110-mile train route that runs through coal towns in eastern Kentucky and western Virginia before reaching the final destination of Kingsport, Tennessee.

This year, “The Voice” star Meghan Linsey joined Santa on the trip as crews delivered toys, candy, school supplies and other gifts.

Working on the Santa Train

Everette Allen, a retired CSX mechanic, worked with the Santa Train for 41 years. He retired 16 years ago and has been volunteering his time ever since to help with the train. Allen orders the fliers, signs and banners that decorate the train and rides through the mountains each year.

“I love to see the people (and) to see the kids and their faces when they get something from Santa,” Allen said. “You couldn’t help but cry when you see a kid get something.”

Larry “Tub” Moorefield began working as a shop foreman on the Santa Train in 1981. After working as a foreman, he started working crowd control during each stop the train would make.

As crowd control, Moorefield would string out yellow caution tape at certain stops along the route and make sure the kids were safe as the train was leaving.

“I was content with (crowd control), because you didn’t have all that pressure,” he said. “You didn’t have to worry about running someone over or getting fired.”

In 2003, Moorefield was honored when his trainmaster asked him to conduct the Santa Train.

“I was apprehensive,” he said. “You knew every official that could get a seat on that train was on there.”

Moorefield was asked to run the train the next year, but declined because “someone else may want the opportunity.”

Waiting for the Santa Train

In Dante — pronounced Daint by those who call it home — Virginia, a small coal town nestled in a valley, the Taylor family has gone to the Santa Train since 1971. While the temperature drops quickly outside, the Taylor home glows with warmth.

Family portraits cover the walls of the home, and a pumpkin-scented candle flickers on the kitchen table as the family gathered in the living room the night before meeting the Santa Train.

Tony Taylor, 49, was five years old when he first saw Santa riding into Dante on the old coal engine.

“You could see the smoke comin’ round the bend, you know, before you even seen it,” Taylor said. “That’s what really got us tore up about it, you know, gettin’ to see the whole train like that smokin’ and the engineers on it blackfaced. They was actually feedin’ the coal in it.”

Taylor’s daughter, Kesha, was five years old when her dad first took her to see the train.

“It’s not about the stuff; it’s about going to the Santa Train,” Kesha said. “It’s about the idea of being there.”

Dante used to be a bustling town and headquarters of the Clinchfield Coal Corporation. After the coal mines closed down, however, the population dwindled, and Dante became home to roughly 700 people, according to the US HomeTownLocator.

Towns and families like Dante and the Taylors are sprinkled throughout the Appalachian route. The joy andaffection was apparent on each childlike face looking up at the white-bearded man in the bright red suit as he came into town.

Karl Schneider is a general assignment reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].