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History Under the Blue Ridge: The Santa Train

History Under the Blue Ridge: The Santa Train

JCPL Library Assistant and local history enthusiast Zachary Harris shares the story behind our region's historic Santa Train.

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Hannah Kiger

Thanks to Library Assistant and Tennessee Room curator Zachary Harris for sharing the story of the Santa Train! Zachary provides accounts of local history on our blog every month. Keep an eye out for his segment, “History Under the Blue Ridge.”

The holiday season is upon us. Here in Central Appalachia, we have a Christmas tradition of cheer-bringing and gift-giving called the Santa Train that chugs along the mountain railroad every year. I first learned about the Santa Train through my work with the Library’s Tennessee Room collection, which contains historical information about our region’s trains and railways.

The Santa Train, wherein ol’ Saint Nicholas travels along the CSX railroad through East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and East Kentucky, stops in historically impoverished mountain communities handing out gifts and goodies to onlookers.

Although unknown to many folks, the Santa Train has become a time-honored tradition. In fact, the job of Saint Nick is so coveted that it has only changed hands four times since it began in 1943.

The origins of this tradition include a story of wartime morale, poverty, and desires to stimulate the mountain economy. Towns like Kingsport and Johnson City looked different in the 1940s, an era of low-wage industry prevalence and tenuous general morale. The low morale generally felt among laborers in factories and mines was directed at the American war effort in World War II.

In the mid 1940s, the titans of industry in our region met in Kingsport and expressed their anxieties about the heightened level of dissatisfaction among Appalachia’s coal workers, who provided much of the steam behind the war effort. These moguls were also aware of the region’s potential for labor unrest.

Local business leaders wanted a program that would stimulate spending in the Tri-Cities and pacify the growing discontent with the war’s ramifications. They decided to use one of the main connectors between remote mountain towns, the railroad.

Four black and white photos. One is of the first Santa Train in 1943 pulling into a station, one is of kids collecting candy on the train tracks as the Santa Train recedes into the background, and two are of the Santa Train crossing bridges.
Photos from The One and Only: A Pictorial History of the Clinchfield No. 1 by A.J. Peoples and Mark A. Stevens

In 1943, they partnered with the owners of the now CSX rail line to send Saint Nicholas on a one-way trip from Pikeville, Kentucky to Kingsport, Tennessee. The jolly old man and his helpers passed out candy and small toys to bystanders all along the route.

In the 80 years since, the Santa Train has departed almost every year, consistently adding new stops and giving out more toys and goodies. The tradition continues to be an event of goodwill and charity. It currently holds the record as one of the world’s longest Santa parades, crisscrossing over 110 miles of mountain rail every year.

An CSX train crosses a steel bridge over a river on a snowy day.
The CSX train circa 2005

While the tradition is primarily remembered for its charitable history, its origin story is often forgotten. The Santa Train was born out of a regional desire to address Appalachian poverty, stimulate an unstable economy, and alleviate the anxieties of wartime.

You can find out more about the Santa Train from WJHL and

Explore the Tennessee Room and Buffalo Mountain collections on the Library’s second floor for more fascinating regional history.