CSX's Santa Train: When Union Pacific 3985 posed as Clinchfield 676

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Sunday, November 12, 2017

CSX’s Santa Train: When Union Pacific No. 3985 played Clinchfield 676

When Clinchfield F7 No. 800, the railroad’s first diesel locomotive, heads up the 75th anniversary Santa Train on Saturday, it will be a landmark event: The 1948 unit in its original gray and yellow garb, back on home rails, and once again in charge of the world’s longest Christmas parade, a trip of about 100 miles from Shelbiana, Ky., to Kingsport, Tenn. But not that long ago, 25 years to be exact, there was another special locomotive heading up the train, the world’s largest operating steam locomotive, Union Pacific 4-6-6-4 No. 3985, imported all the way from Cheyenne, Wyo., and disguised as Clinchfield No. 676 in honor of the CRR’s own fleet of dearly departed Challengers. It was an unbelievable event to honor the 50th running of the train. I mean, a UP steam locomotive traveling across the continent to portray a regional railroad’s biggest and best steam power … well, that’s just the stuff of railfan dreams. But it happened. And yes, it was truly good. Big steam powered the train. Gifts were tossed off the back platform. Children smiled. I know because I was there, and I even got paid overtime to be on the train. Here’s how it happened.

In 1992, I was a writer for the Charlotte Observer. At the time, just about every newspaper in the nation had one reporter who was their designed “railroad writer.” It was very much of an honorary title. We all covered something else full time, and wrote about railroads as the opportunities came along because we wanted to. Some of us were overtly fans. Some had a passing interest. We may have not covered railroading day to day, but when something big happened, we were the go-go guys to explain it to our readers. We knew what was important to the populace at large outside of “train world.” So, knowing that this was the 50th anniversary of the train, I went to my editors with the idea of covering the train for the Observer. It was a long shot – Kingsport, Tenn., is a long way from the fartherest reaches of the Observer’s coverage area. But it was also a great story of generosity, and barring any crazy news, would make a great centerpiece for the Sunday paper. To my amazement, they approved it.

So, on a beautifully sunny November day, a Nikon slung on my shoulder and reporter’s notebook tucked into my back pants pocket, I arrived in Kingsport and went looking for the renumbered and relettered Challenger. I was horrified. Things weren’t going well. The guest superstar was stuck on the wye, unable to complete her turn to pull the deadhead train northbound. I smelled disaster – all this trouble and effort all for naught when the wye wouldn’t cooperate. I also sensed trouble on a professional level: This wasn’t what I had promised my editors. But relief was soon in coming. I learned that CSX and UP had a activated Plan B. A diesel would pull the train and the No. 676 would remain pointed south. The next day, the big day, she would be pointed in the right direction to pull Santa’s train. All was indeed well.

I boarded the deadhead train and settled in for the ride into the darkness. Socializing became the point of this trip. I enjoyed dinner with my friend and CSX executive Frank Dewey in dining car Greenbriar. I met Passenger Train Journal Editor Carl Swanson (now a colleague at work, where he is editor of Classic Toy Trains), and spent quality time with good friend and Trains contributor Ron Flanary. After a short night in a hotel in nearby Pikeville, Ky., we were up way before dawn, on the train, and soon moving southbound on this dream come true trip.

Being a good reporter, I was in my seat 30 seconds and off in search of the story. I wandered back to the tail car, West Virginia, which was packed with plastic tubs full of toys, school supplies, and treats for distribution off the back platform. This was the business end of the Santa Train. While the power on this trip was special, it was here that the spirit of giving came alive. I was in awe. While I stood there dumbfounded, one of the Santa Train workers came up to me, introduced themselves, and demanded that I surrender my Nikon and set aside my notepad for a few minutes. I was invited to stand at the railings of the back platform, shown an open plastic tub, and invited to toss items off to anyone who might appear trackside. “Everybody has to do it,” my host implored. “You have to experience it. When you do it, this will be your Christmas.” She was right. Seeing the excited kids and adults trackside as I opened my hands and let fly with another round of goodies was a different kind of thrill: The joy of giving to others. The fleeting connection, one human to another. I was living that fantasy moment in the movie The Color Purple where Whoppi Goldberg stands on the back platform of a train and tosses off gold coins to her younger self. For me, it was a great moment that was about to suddenly get better.

Minutes later, I was introduced to another back platform guest. “Meet Jerry Davis,” they said. Starstuck, I almost fell over the handrails and onto the roadbed receding behind us. Davis was the executive vice president and chief operating officer at CSX; he’d come aboard after an upper management job at Southern Pacific (and eventually left CSX in 1996 for Union Pacific’s top job). They gave Davis the same instructions as me. If you see someone, toss goodies. Be generous. Don’t fall off. Davis was friendly and conversational. My admiration for this whole operation swelled. Was there something special pulling the train? Oh, yes, there was.  

Throughout the day, I alternated been an open dutch door, where I took in the sights and sounds of No. 676 eating up miles, my seat for note taking, and hitting the ground to interview people and snap pictures. This happened throughout the morning and early afternoon. When we got to famous Copper Creek viaduct, we paused for photos perched high over the creek and the parallel Norfolk Southern line. The engine crew decided to blow down the engine, and there was a joke on the radio about taking a leak on the NS far below. Satisfied with this day, everyone got a good laugh. And then, it was the short dash into Kingsport, and it was over. It was a huge letdown when it all came to a screeching halt. After arrival, Santa left the train for the city’s annual Christmas parade, and I departed for a nearby hotel room to write my report. But things weren’t over.

Nobody and I mean nobody was going to move a 4-6-6-4 across the land just to run it one day only. Not UP, not CSX, nobody. The day after the Santa Train CSX ran No. 676 and the office cars on a short shippers special to Miller Yard near St. Paul, about 1/3 of the distance of the Santa Train. It was raining to beat the band, but nobody cared. I joined friends Mike Cathey and Richard Morse in chasing this amazing encore. I stood and watched that big engine high atop Copper Creek in a moment of jubilant disbelief. 

At the time, I honestly believed that we’d seen the best Santa Train ever. There was no way that CSX could ever top the Challenger’s visit. Well, we’ll see about that – No. 800’s appointment in original garb to the front of the train may just rival the borrowed steam locomotive. But No. 676 and the Santa Train will always rank up there in the top 10 of my experiences as a railroad journalist.  

 

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