No Need for Rudolph—in Appalachia, Santa Travels by Rail

updated 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Later in the season, according to custom, he will appear on the roof with reindeer accompaniment. It's a tricky business, any way you look at it, involving a hazardous descent down the chimney. On his annual pre-Christmas run through Appalachia, though, Santa's a little more up-to-date, riding the high iron on a personal train. He's been doing it that way for 46 years now, and the people there wouldn't have it any other way. After an airborne sleigh journey from the North Pole, Saint Nick climbs aboard his Santa Claus Special in Shelby, Ky., for the 110-mile, 7½-hour journey south through Virginia to Kingsport, Tenn. "I like to use a train here," Santa says, "so the reindeer can rest up for the main event."

Sponsored by the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce and CSX Transportation, the Santa Special has grown from an HO-scale event during World War II into a crowd-pleasing harbinger of the holiday season. This year, anticipating up to 25,000 spectators, many with visions of sugarplums and durable goods dancing in their heads, Santa embarked at 7:20 A.M. from Shelby hauling a boxcar loaded with 3,000 digital watches, 50,000 cassette story tapes, 5,000 midget race cars, 3,000 Frisbees and 10 tons of candy. As the train wound through the mountains at 10 mph, Santa and 30 helpers showered goodies on people gathered along the track. Every few hours the train made a brief stop, and Santa delivered gifts from the platform of the caboose.

Santa—if you've never met him, he looks a lot like Frank Brogden, 61, public relations director at the Kodak plant in Kingsport—is ever mindful of people who might get lost in the crowd. Two years ago, he recalls, a young mentally retarded woman in Elkhorn City, Va., stood patiently amid a pack of excited kids. "I reached down and gave her a two-pound bag of cookies," Santa says. Last year he spotted a little girl standing by the track with her father, watching dejectedly as Santa rolled by. "I had this enormous pink elephant doll, which I tossed, like a quarterback, right into her father's arms," he says. "I suspect she'll remember that the rest of her life."

Before the advent of television and shopping malls, Santa's train provided the only opportunity for some Appalachian children to get a glimpse of Saint Nick in action. Brenda Fletcher, 37, who greeted Santa near Clinchco, Va., this year with her husband, Jimmy, and 10-year-old son, Kyle, remembers the first time she stood in the cold waiting for the train. "That was 30 years ago," she says. "It seemed like the real Santa then. It still does."

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