Clinchfield Country and CSX's 75th anniversary Santa Train

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Sunday, November 19, 2017

Clinchfield. The word conjures images of a regional railroad defined by multiple sooted black six-axle units in run 8, working against gravity and curvature, hard against slide detection fences, soaring across bridges, and diving into the cool of 55 tunnels, to move coal out of the heart of Appalachia. It brings to mind railroaders, many of them multi-generational, working locals, mine runs, coal trains, and time freights across 277 of the most rugged and beautiful mountain railroad miles ever built in the Eastern U.S. And in more recent years, it has been synonymous with coal railroading’s waning fortunes, a route downgraded, where stored cars outnumber active loads, a virtual corpse in the day and age when mega trains and closed hump yards are the way to prosperity under Hunter Harrison.

So, Saturday’s 75th anniversary run of the Clinchfield Santa Train, now CSX’s Santa Train, was a welcomed ray of light on a cloudy November day and at the height of an otherwise dismal time for this proud railroad and this beleaguered coal mining region. The corporate name may have been CSX for the last 31 years, but the Clinchfield Railroad spirit lives on – a family operation with a sense of determination and generosity, closely intertwined with its community, best illustrated by the tracks in front of the Union Baptist Church and homes in Dante, Va. Along the Santa Train route, from Shelbiana, Ky., near Pikeville, Ky., to Kingsport, Tenn., local residents flocked to see this annual tradition and collect gifts tossed from the back platform of office car West Virginia. For this region, hard hit by coal’s sudden and deep dive, the train is a connection to the past and a symbol of permanency. The word “CLINCHFIELD” spelled out across the nose of the CRR’s first diesel locomotive, freshly restored F7 No. 800, is undisputable proof that this much beloved railroad and the communities through which it passes will survive.

To honor the train’s history, CSX ran the privately-owned No. 800 through Huntington Shops, where the inspired paint shop crew carefully restored the unit to its 1948 appearance, a dazzling gray and yellow look that must have been striking almost 70 years ago and one that hasn’t been seen on a cab unit for more than 45 years when solid black replaced the more colorful look.

CSX rightfully selected No. 800 to pull Santa’s train – a railroad twist on the 1960s animated children’s Christmas program “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” No. 800, with your gray and yellow so bright, won’t you pull my train? The answer, of course, was yes. Teaming up with the streamliner was Seaboard Coast Line SD45 No. 2024, part of the Southern Appalachian Railway Museum collection, portraying CRR No. 3632, next in line after seven of the 3,600-hp beasts traded to CRR in 1977 for the Clinchfield’s own orphan U36Cs. They represented the alpha to the omega of Clinchfield diesel power in the last half of the 20th century in an era before Family Lines, before Seaboard System, and before CSX. They headlined the train while CSX’s executive train F40s Nos. 9992 and 9999 came along for the ride and to provide head-end power. That's the machinery story, but there's also a story to be told about the people who made it possible. 

Supporters of the No. 800 / No. 3632 combination on the point of the anniversary Santa Train worked quietly and tirelessly for more than 2 years to convince, cajole, secure permissions, make agreements, update, fine tune, paint, primp, move, paint, reletter, renumber, and check out every detail so their operation would be flawless, their appearance spot on. They could have given up or accepted less many times, but they didn’t. When one problem surfaced, they came up with the solutions. Like the Clinchfield, they got the job done. And when the big day came, they and all of us trackside, whether the family from Clinchco, Va., who turns out for the train each year, or the New York railfans who trekked here to see this sight, were rewarded magnificently with the sight of this rolling history and this tribute to the Clinchfield family. Under the hand of engineer Tony King, a CRR veteran, and the scores of CSX railroaders who made the extra effort to honor an important piece of history on a big anniversary, Santa came to town one more time and the Clinchfield Railroad proved unstoppable again. “How tomorrow moves” is CSX’s company slogan, but a one day reprieve in the likes of Marrowbone, Ky., Toms Bottom, Va., and Kermit, Va., does not tarnish it in the least. The sound of engineer King playing “Jingle Bells” on No. 800’s air horn, and No. 3632 answering, as they crossed iconic Copper Creek Viaduct was the kind of Christmas concert to gladden those within its hearing in the hills and hollows of Appalachia, a place forever known to those who love this land, its people, and this railroad as Clinchfield Country.



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