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My family’s Christmas tradition with the Santa Train began quite by accident in 1988. While heading through one of the many former coal towns in Southwest Virginia to visit family we came upon a large gathering of people near the railroad tracks. My dad pulled over to find out what was happening. A few minutes later he ran back to the car and shouted, “Everybody get out. The Santa Train is coming!”
Brief History of the Santa Train
The first Santa Train passed through the region in 1943. Most families of coal miners lived in poverty and spent most of their hard-earned income on the bare necessities; Christmas gifts were a luxury. A plan was devised to collect donated toys, clothing, and food items and deliver them via train to the coal towns.
Since then the Santa Train has expanded to include corporate sponsorships and a celebrity guest each year. Today the sponsors include CSX, Appalachian Power, Food City, and the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce. CSX crews work alongside local law enforcement to secure the safety of the crowds gathered on the tracks and Santa Claus still makes his grand appearance at the back of the train.
What exactly can you see at the Santa Train?
“Everybody get out. The Santa Train is coming!” My brother, sister, and I immediately jumped out of the car into the frigid November air excited for a chance to see…well we didn’t actually know what we were going to see. A massive crowd of people stood on the train tracks passing through the small coal town of St. Paul, Virginia. We made our way into the crowd and waited.
Soon enough I heard the train whistle cut through the air. I looked down the curve of the tracks to see a giant (from the perspective of an eight-year-old) train locomotive inching toward us. The train carefully trudged along the tracks and eventually came to a stop with the back of the train in the center of the crowd.
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A moment later Santa Claus appeared! He began tossing out stuffed animals, sweaters, and plastic balls. My dad lifted my three-year-old brother onto his shoulders so he could get a better chance of catching something. He caught something, alright; a backgammon game in a faux leather-bound briefcase right in the forehead.
When the train slowly pulled away about twenty minutes later my arms were full of candy, clothes, and toys. I kept that backgammon game for nearly fifteen years although I never learned how to play. What started as a coincidence instantly became an annual Christmas tradition for my family that we continued until all of us had moved away from the area.
The Santa Train today has evolved to be more of a tourist attraction and family Christmas tradition than a service to poor coal mining families. Thousands of people from throughout the region travel for a chance to snag a board game, plush animal, or coloring book at one of the fourteen stops.
16 years after my first experience with the Santa Train I returned for the first time as an adult. I began with that same stop in St. Paul, followed the train through Dungannon and Fort Blackmore, and finished in Kingsport. It was just as exciting to me almost two decades later as it had been that very first time. Where else was I ever going to see Santa on the back of a train?
What is the 2019 Santa Train schedule?
The Santa Train hits the rails on Saturday, November 23, 2019 and makes stops at 14 locations between Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. Volunteers (aka Santa’s helpers) only hand out items at these fourteen stops. The train sticks to a pretty solid schedule throughout the 110-mile journey.
Here’s a complete schedule for the 2019 Santa Train:
- 5:45 a.m. Shelby, KY
- 6:20 a.m. Marrowbone, KY
- 7:05 a.m. Elkhorn City, KY
- 7:45 a.m. Toms Bottom, VA
- 8:07 a.m. Haysi, VA
- 8:40 a.m. Clinchco, VA
- 9:08 a.m. Fremont, VA
- 10:08 a.m. Dante, VA
- 10:53 a.m. St. Paul, VA
- 12:03 p.m. Dungannon, VA
- 12:48 p.m. Fort Blackmore, VA
- 1:48 p.m. Kermit, VA
- 2:20 p.m. Waycross, VA
- 3:00 p.m. Kingsport, TN
What are the best places to see the Santa Train?
If you’re a local you probably know how to get to one of the fourteen stops the Santa Train makes each year. But if you’re not from that neck of the woods it can seem a bit daunting and confusing to find a good place to see the Santa Train. Some of the stops the train makes are very small communities that would be quite difficult to reach from out of town.
So instead, here is a list of the best places to see the Santa Train.
Elkhorn City, KY This small town is the best place to see the Santa Train in Kentucky. The train stops near Pine Street and the Elkhorn City Railroad Museum. There is plenty of room to wait for the train’s arrival with a grass field along the railroad tracks and plenty of parking around town.
St. Paul, VA This small town has become a center for outdoor recreation and is the best place to see the Santa Train in Virginia. The town has plenty of parking on either side of the tracks, but don’t park at the Food City unless you’re up for a bit of a hike. There is plenty of room on either side of the tracks for a large crowd to safely enjoy the Santa Train and it is easy to get across the tracks if you need.
Dungannon, VA This small community is another great place to see the Santa Train because there isn’t much surrounding the railroad tracks. The only way to get there is along VA Highway 65 between Castlewood and Clinchport. Visitors park along both sides of the road so be prepared for some congestion in the area.
Fort Blackmore, VA The stop at this small community ironically has the best place to see the Santa Train but with the worst parking access. The train stops just before the bridge on VA Highway 65 crossing the river. The only available parking is along Islandview Circle, a road running parallel to Highway 65. If you can manage to find parking, though, you’ll be surrounded by nothing but trees when the train makes a stop.
Copper Creek Viaduct One of the most interesting places to see the Santa Train is at a scenic overlook as the train crosses the towering Cooper Creek Viaduct, a train trestle a couple hundred feet above the ground. The trestle spans a large gap between two mountains with Cooper Creek at the bottom. Parking is limited, but if you can manage to get a space you’ll have a great view of the train crossing the bridge.
Kingsport, TN The best place to see the Santa Train in Tennessee also happens to be the only place it makes a stop in the Volunteer State. There is ample parking throughout downtown Kingsport, all within easy walking distance of where the train arrives. The Santa Train pulls just past the old train depot that has now been converted into a Citizens Bank. There is plenty of room for the inevitable large crowd and makes this one of the less packed places to see the Santa Train.
What happens when the Santa Train arrives in Kingsport?
When I was a kid the Santa Train would arrive in Kingsport and kick off their Christmas Parade. After spending about twenty minutes handing out gifts from the back of the train the Santa would leave the train and hop onto the firetruck to end the parade.
Sadly, that isn’t how it works anymore. The Kingsport Christmas Parade & Tree Lighting is a couple of weeks after the annual Santa Train now. It’s still a rather fantastic parade and now at night you can see the lights on the floats better!
Santa’s Depot has now taken the place of the parade at the end of the Santa Train’s journey. The event, held from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. at Centennial Park beside the railroad tracks, features live music from the special guest on the Santa Train, activities like writing letters to Santa, and plenty of great local food.
Suggested Day Trip Itinerary for the Santa Train
One of the things I love most about the Santa Train is the location. This area of Southwest Virginia is one of the most beautiful in the state. This day trip itinerary begins with the train’s stop in St. Paul and then heads off to Norton for lunch, a beautiful mountaintop observation tower, a scenic drive along US Highway 23 through Powell Valley, and a stop at Natural Tunnel State Park.
10 a.m. St. Paul, VA Arrive in this small town a bit early to guarantee a parking space. There’s no telling how far you’ll have to go to find parking but start on Riverside Drive toward the old baseball field in the park. The Santa Train is set to arrive in St. Paul at 10:53 a.m.
12 p.m. Norton, VA At one time this was considered the “big city” for all the people living in nearby coal towns. Today Norton is an interesting place to visit with some great food options for lunch. Try the Wood Booger Grill for enormous burgers, DoughMaker’s Pizza for subs and homemade pizzas, or head out of town to Reno’s Roadhouse for delicious steaks.
1:15 p.m. High Knob Lookout Tower At 4,223’ above sea level the view from High Knob Lookout Tower is breathtaking. The curvy drive to the parking area only takes about twenty minutes from Norton and is well worth the journey to enjoy the view.
2 p.m. Natural Tunnel State Park Since you’ve been following the Santa Train all day why not make a stop at one of the most fascinating natural wonders in Virginia? Natural Tunnel State Park’s big feature is a tunnel through a mountain that was natural carved out over millions of years by a river. When the coal mining companies came into this part of Virginia they built a railroad through the natural tunnel and it is still used today.
3:30 p.m. Kingsport, TN Although the Santa Train will be gone, the events at Santa’s Depot in Centennial Park should still be going strong. Take a walk along Broad Street, Center Street, and Market Street through downtown to find some fantastic local shopping for Christmas gifts.