For 76 years, the Santa Train has delivered Christmas to Appalachia

It was pitch black outside as the old rail cars jolted to life with a groan. Then another jolt and a subtle and quickening clack, clack, clack as the Santa Train left the Shelby Yard in Pike County.

It was 5:50 a.m. 

Over the next nine hours, the train would wind its way 110 miles through the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and Western Virginia, and into Eastern Tennessee, making stops at coal towns and crossroads to give out toys, food, school supplies and coats.

Mary Hughett came from Bristol, Virginia, with her 2-year-old son Aiden, and followed the train, stop after stop, from Shelbiana, in Pike County, Kentucky, to Dungannon, in Scott County, Virginia, collecting gifts along the way. 

“This has been the worst year,” said Hughett, a single mother who has struggled to pay bills. “We’ve hit rock bottom.”

Without the Santa Train, she couldn’t give presents to her son and others who otherwise wouldn’t have much of a Christmas, said Hughett, as she stood, her arms loaded down with a coat, toys and other gifts. 

For many along the route — through impoverished coal fields where money is scarce and jobs are even harder to come by — the only Christmas presents to be had this year will be the ones given them by the jolly old elf on the back of the CSX train and the hundred or so volunteers who help him. 

Past Garden Village and Justiceville, the train rolled. Clack, clack, clack.

“It’s a tradition,” said Reanna Adkins, who waited in the dark of Marrowbone, Kentucky, as volunteers waded through the crowd with bags of gifts. Santa stood on the back platform of the West Virginia, the 65-year-old hospital car that serves as his sleigh, and tossed stuffed animals to the crowd.

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