Christmas came to coal country Saturday, as it has for the past 61 years, with Santa Claus rolling into town on the back platform of a train. As the blue CSX train slowed to a halt, Santa did not waste time shouting even half of a ho-ho to nearly 1,000 people who had waited along the tracks for an hour or two under thick gray clouds.
Santa got busy. He reached into a box, grabbed a handful of stuffed animals and other toys and hurled them high into the air, trying to reach the back of the crowd, which had surged onto the tracks. Santa had at least a half-dozen helpers on the platform, tossing a blizzard of coloring books, candy, MoonPies, clothes and most every other thing a child might have included in a letter to the North Pole.
Saturday was the 62nd running of the Santa Special, which steams through the mountains and hollows of Appalachia on the weekend before Thanksgiving, making stops to give away gifts in towns no bigger than a general store and a gas station.
The train began the day in the eastern Kentucky town of Shelbiana, stopping more than a dozen times along the 110-mile route that snaked through southwest Virginia and ended in Kingsport in eastern Tennessee, where Santa, no doubt with a very sore shoulder, disembarked for an annual parade.
About 15 tons of toys were distributed along the route. The train is co-sponsored by CSX Transportation and the Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce as a treat for a historically disadvantaged region.
"Oh, gosh, we're here every year," gushed Bethel Blevins, wearing a festive red sweater and standing beside the tracks before the train arrived here. "We brought our children, and now we bring our grandchildren." Blevins was with her grandson, Jordan, 14, and her twin granddaughters, Shiann and Samantha, 6.
Blevins said she grew up not far from St. Paul but never came to the Santa Special as a child because she lived up in the hills and her family didn't have any transportation. Now, she never misses a year.
At some stops, only a few hundred people were waiting, but in St. Paul, a town of less than 1,000, many came from the surrounding countryside to the downtown area on the banks of the Clinch River.
St. Paul police Chief Allen Porter pulled up in his cruiser more than an hour before the train arrived at 11:30 a.m. "First time?" he asked a visitor. "You're in for a treat." He popped the trunk of the cruiser, grabbed some yellow police tape and began walking toward the tracks and the steadily building crowd.
"I don't want to sound negative," said Porter, a St. Paul native. "I think this started out as a real good thing, but just watch the grownups when the train comes in. It's a frenzy. If we could think of a way to just get the kids in there it would be nice, but you have to have the grownups, I guess."
Wayne Walcott was one of the first to arrive, bringing his two daughters, Ashlynn, 13, Michaella, 10, and son, Christopher, 12. They just moved to the area from central Florida to be close to his family and to rebuild his life after Walcott was injured in a serious car accident that left him out of work. He has since found work as a carpenter.
It was their first Santa Special experience, and Ashlynn was pretty excited. "I just thought it was pretty neat that they throw stuff from the train," she said.
Her father nodded. "Yeah," he said, "they don't do this in Florida. We think the people up here are a lot nicer than down there in Florida. You can't even get people to speak to you in the grocery store down there. Up here, people speak to you even though they don't know you. It is a good place to raise kids."
Coal was once king here, but that reign has been declining slowly. People who live here must find other lines of work or drive as far as 45 miles to larger cities for jobs.
Larry Hughes, 54, came out for the Santa Special with his wife, daughter and 6-month old granddaughter. Hughes worked in the coal mines for 18 years.
"I think this is very beneficial," said Hughes, who left the mines, went back to school and now teaches trade courses at a community college. "I think a lot of the people who live around here are underprivileged. You got families with both the mom and dad working, and they are just getting by. People around here are hard workers, but there just aren't enough jobs."
Most of the students he teaches used to work in the mines or for companies that have closed or left the area. He said the average age of his students is between 35 and 45.
At 11:30 a.m. the big, blue engine pulling the Santa Special came around a bend signaling its arrival with two loud toots. Porter and railroad workers kept the crowd behind the yellow tape. As the train slowed to a stop, the crowd rushed behind the final car. "Santa, over here," shouted one boy sitting on his father's shoulders .
Santa worked nonstop. The flight of the toys was constant. Some were snatched by adults, some ended up bopping kids on the noggin. Children cried under the rain of toys. Santa picked out people and threw stuffed animals at them like a NFL quarterback finding a receiver. This went on for more than 15 minutes: Teddy bears, winter hats, dolls, balls and coloring books flew into the air, some so high they bounced off utility wires.
At 11:46 a.m., the train inched away. Santa stopped throwing gifts and rested his arm. There was another stop down the track in Dungannon, a town of a few hundred people who were already waiting for the coal-country Santa express.