“The ground shuddered as the deafening blast reverberated throughout the rugged mountains of southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky. The local women, though miles away from their husbands, dropped their work when they heard the terrifying dull boom, hoping a neighbor was blowing up tree stumps in the holler. Yet, in the hidden part of their souls, they knew it was a coal mine explosion,” Brenda’s Aunt Rose told her ten siblings and her parents, who grew silent as they gathered around the brilliantly illuminated tree on Christmas Eve to hear Rose’s story.
Every year at Christmastime, it was a family tradition for one of the eight daughters to tell a story of love and thanksgiving to the rest of the family. Aunt Rose, the youngest daughter, said World War II was raging and times were still hard, especially for the families of the Appalachian region. “Daddy lost his job when the mine closed after the explosion. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time, ‘cause the mountain communities were still reeling from the Great Depression.”
There wasn’t sick leave or vacation leave back then. If you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid.
“We had no money. Nobody did,” Rose said. “But we had plenty of love. One year, I remember receiving only an apple and an orange on Christmas Day and was happy to get them. It didn’t matter if we were rich or poor, we all were home for Christmas.”
She said there wasn’t much food, but there were small portions of a bit of everything. If Daddy could bag a turkey, we had turkey and dressing. In our minds at least, we were as rich as any king or queen.
In 1943, at the other end of the state, just across the state line, a group of business owners from Kingsport, Tennessee, wanted to do something special for their neighbors in Southwest Virginia, to thank them for their patronage, and to help them through those tough times.
The men had a special Christmas train head out of Kingsport, on up through Southwest Virginia, to the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky. In Pikeville, Kentucky, Brenda’s hometown, the train would pick up Santa Claus, then circle back to Kingsport, handing out gifts to families along the way.
The Santa Train traveled 110 miles and passed through over 30 towns delivering Christmas cheer.
Thousands of people living along the tracks received 15 tons of toys from the train. Train personnel threw candy, crackers, popcorn, bubble gum, cookies, stuffed animals, electronic games, hats, handmade gloves, mittens, toboggans, T-shirts, wrapping paper and other treats from the train’s caboose.
The giant steam locomotive reached towns and cities in the remote Appalachian Mountains that had no other means of transportation. The train supplied many children the only toys they received during World War II.
One year, a couple of weeks after Thanksgiving, Rose and her sisters saw a poster along the railroad tracks about the Santa Train, and when it would be arriving in their town. Although their dad abhorred charity, he relented, seeing the excitement in their eyes.
The special day soon arrived, and way off in the distance, they first heard a whistle, and then the black locomotive came into view, puffing around the bend at the edge of town, billowing smoke, and leaving a trail of coal dust in its path.
All eleven children were waiting at the train station. It was snowing heavily, a wet snow with large flakes, the kind of snow that clung to their eyelashes; but with the warm steam and excited crowd, they didn’t notice the weather at all.
As the train got closer it began to slow down. The conductor and his helpers in the caboose began to hand out gifts as the train came to a slow stop. Rose said she received a doll baby, a woolen jacket, a big bag of M and M’s, and an apple and an orange, which made her smile.
The whistle sounded, steam started to spew from the engine, and it was time to leave. Santa hopped aboard, the train chugged out of the Tazewell depot, and began its return journey through the mountains, roaring out of sight on south to Kingsport.
Many years later, as Aunt Rose was living her last days on earth, Brenda and I visited her at her home in Elizabethton, Tennessee.
Shortly after one of her frequent naps, we asked her about the story she told her family about the Santa Train. Her eyes brightened and a smile spread gently across her face.
“You know, it’s funny. Sometimes when I’m dreaming, it all comes back to me. We would gather and tell our stories and sing carols around the Christmas tree.
“I hope y’all will keep up the tradition,” she said, in a soft voice as she fell back to sleep.
“We will,” we said, while we slipped an apple and orange across her bedstand, as the train downtown slowly slipped away into the summer night.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County native and former county commissioner and sheriff.