Chamber Executive Article Archive

Appalachia’s Polar Express

By Katherine House

Fall 2014

On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, a blue and yellow CSX train chugs over trestles, along winding tracks, and through stone tunnels in southwestern Virginia and parts of Kentucky and Tennessee. Unlike the freight trains hauling coal from this region, this train has a special mission—and a special passenger: Santa Claus, on the platform of the caboose, ready to greet people of all ages and pass out presents. The “Santa Train,” which makes its 72nd annual run this year, is a joint project of the Kingsport (Tenn.) Chamber of Commerce; CSX; supermarket chain Food City; and Dignity U Wear, a philanthropic organization. The tradition originated in 1943, when members of the Merchants’ Association in Kingsport, a forerunner of the chamber, wanted to thank residents of the region who traveled to their town to patronize local businesses. The tradition has survived and thrived through wars, economic booms and busts, and the age of Internet shopping. Now, as then, Kingsport serves as a regional hub. Today, retail sales (and sales taxes) remain vital to the local economy, says Miles Burdine, an ACCE Board member and president and CEO of the chamber, in part because Tennessee does not levy a tax on wages. The Santa Train also ushers in the holiday season, just as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade does in New York. When the train pulls into Kingsport mid-afternoon, Santa hops off and participates in the town’s Christmas parade, which brings thousands of people downtown. 

The size and scope of the Santa Train project are staggering. The train travels a 110-mile route and gives out goodies at 14 stops, including the starting point in Kentucky and its final stop in Kingsport. It departs at 6:30 a.m., requiring train riders to be bused to the starting point the night before, where they stay at a hotel and review last-minute details. The amount of time the train stops in each town is predetermined and varies from 10 to 20 minutes. The schedule is tight. Santa must arrive in Kingsport on time. Along the route, he and other volunteers hand out about 15 tons of goodies, including books, candy, puzzles, toys, winter clothing, and wrapping paper. At each stop, crowds range in size from a few hundred to more than a thousand.

As it did at the outset, the business community and chamber play a vital role in planning and executing the event. Each year, the chamber names a staff member to serve as Santa Train Coordinator, responsible for behind-the-scenes work and coordinating conference calls with the other sponsors. The chamber also serves as the conduit for numerous in-kind and financial donations that make the event possible, says Amy Margaret Allen, 2014 Santa Train coordinator and the chamber’s convention/ visitors bureau executive assistant and marketing manager. The staff unpacks donations and sends personalized thank-you notes to everyone who donates.

When the chamber runs out of room to store everything, Allen will call Food City, and move items into its large warehouse. The Kingsport Chamber also collects funds for a $5,000 college scholarship given to a high school student living along the train’s route. Saint Nick himself, Kingsport accountant Don Royston, is a chamber member and past board chair. He’s only the fourth Santa in 72 years.

“It’s a time-honored and cherished tradition” that holds a “special place in our hearts” says Nicole Austin, IOM, the chamber’s 2013 Santa Train Coordinator. It “brings a lot of joy to the staff and community.” Austin is the chamber’s workforce development and government relations director.

Over the years, the Santa Train has garnered national publicity. CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt featured it in an “On the Road” segment. It has its own Facebook page and web site, complete with a countdown clock, and is the subject of a children’s book by a Kingsport author. For the last several years, a celebrity—often a country singer—has gone along on the ride. Eastern Kentucky native Patty Loveless has been the honored guest; this year it will be Amy Grant. As a child, Loveless received gifts from the Santa Train and later recorded a song about the Christmas tradition.

As a result of the national spotlight, the chamber receives donations from across the U.S., including toys, quilts, stuffed animals and hand-knitted items. Members of a church group in Indiana buy teddy bears and personalize them with hand-made clothing. “They are highly sought-after,” says Allen. Some of the attention has portrayed the Santa Train as a charity project for people who could not afford Christmas otherwise. Burdine says the Santa Train was not founded for that reason, nor does it continue for that reason. “It’s a labor of love,” he says. “It truly is a joy to watch the people along the route enjoy the history and traditions [of the Santa Train].”

Planning for the big day begins in earnest in August, when sponsors begin weekly conference calls that become more frequent later in the year. Allen will help with a variety of logistical details, including reserving hotel rooms in the departure city, getting riders to sign waivers and sending media requests to a public relations firm hired by CSX.

In addition to Burdine, the chamber board chair and the Santa Train Coordinator, one chamber employee is selected to ride the train each year. As a sponsor, the chamber has the privilege of inviting about 15 additional people aboard. The list is compiled throughout the year, and the chamber board chair makes the final selection, carefully choosing people who have made significant contributions to the community.

The Kingsport Chamber also helps publicize the packing party, held outdoors in the Food City parking lot the Wednesday before the Santa Train runs. Regardless of the weather, 150-200 people come out to pack the bins that will be carried onto the train for distribution, says Allen. Food City generously feeds all the volunteers.

And there is plenty of work required to put on the parade in Kingsport. As with any large event, the chamber works with local law enforcement officials, plans for handicapped parking spaces, hires local celebrities and arranges for adequate trash cans, among numerous logistical details. 

For those involved with the Santa Train—and those along the route, it’s impossible to imagine Christmas without it. Some older residents of the area have greeted the train most of their lives. As one person explained on the Santa Train Facebook page, “The Santa Train has sewn a trail of joy into the very fabric of Appalachian culture.” The writer took her children many years ago; now she goes with her grandchildren. Whether they receive gifts or not, the excitement “puts a twinkle in the eyes of the little ones like no other time of year,” she says.

Katherine House is a business writer based in Iowa City, Iowa, and a frequent contributor to Chamber Executive.


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