Santa, Maddie & Tae spread cheer along 76th Santa Train's route

J. H. Osborne • Nov 17, 2018 at 11:34 PM

KINGSPORT — The 76th annual Santa Train has come and gone, but it left behind 15 tons of gifts — including 5,000 new children’s coats — and what many along the route say will be lifetime memories for them, their families and communities.

The train left Shelby, Ky., at 6 a.m. after a 15-minute distribution of items at CSX’s train yard there. Twelve stops followed in Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee before the train arrived in downtown Kingsport at about 3 p.m.

It was dark and chilly when the train left Shelby, and even after daybreak at the Elkhorn City, Ky., stop the temperatures remained cool much of the morning and a light fog lingered along the route. But by midday, skies turned sunny and the temperature reached the mid 50s. No matter the weather, crowds awaited Santa and his helpers at each stop.

For many people, seeing the train is their goal. For others, getting something from Santa or one of his helpers is a desire. Some say without the Santa Train, their children would do without this holiday season.

And with it being the 76th run, families along the 110-mile route have made coming to the train or watching it pass by from a side road a multi-generational tradition.

At Dungannon, Va., the Mann family has a deep connection to the train. Ruth Mann Collins said when she and her sisters were young, candy and small items tossed from the train were sometimes the highlight of Christmas, as far as gifts went. Today the Santa Train is much like a family reunion for Ruth and her family. Several years ago, she said, she and her son helped start a little something extra at the Dungannon stop, and it has grown into what is now a community festival of sorts, with local churches providing their own gift toss to help make sure as many people as possible get something on Santa Train day.

Shirley Jackson, meanwhile, is hoping to make the Santa Train a tradition for her 2-year-old grandson, Lucas Sturgill, whom she and family members brought for his first visit this year.

“He just loves trains,” Jackson said. “I bought him a train for Christmas. I’ve been coming to the train for years, but this is his first time. I wanted him to see it.”

Dante, Va., is another community which gathers on Santa Train day, and this year was no different. Among the large crowd were Patrica Neece and her dog, Branson. To Neece’s surprise, one of Santa’s helpers approached and handed her a gift bag full of pet treats.

Santa’s special guests this year were country music duo Maddie & Tae. They joined him on the back of the train to toss gifts and got off the train and distributed presents in the crowd on the ground at one stop.

It was their first experience on the Santa Train, and Tae said it wasn’t what they expected “but in the best way.”

She said one of the duo’s favorite things to do, especially this time of year, is to give back.

“This was perfect for that,” she said.

Maddie said they felt honored to be included and it was great to see firsthand so many people working together to give back to the communities along the train’s route.

“The day has been awesome,” Maddie said.

Asked about the experience of being aboard a train, they said the motion of the train reminded them of riding on their tour bus, something they’re used to.

Their favorite moments?

“”My favorite part of today was whenever I was throwing a toy to a particular kid, that you could tell they really, really wanted a little toy,” Maddie said. “And it would take me a couple of tries to make it to that particular kid. But when they caught it, the look on their face was priceless.”

“My favorite part of today is hearing the kids yelling, ‘Santa, Santa!’ ” Tae said. “It was their excitement. ... They feel special.”

The Santa Train is sponsored by CSX, Food City, Appalachian Power, the Kingsport Chamber and Soles4Souls.