KINGSPORT, Tenn. — Making its 68th run, the Santa Train that starts early Saturday in Pike County, Ky., and winds through Virginia back home to Tennessee has become a multi-generational tradition.
The businesses and charities that sponsor the train, billed as the country's longest Christmas parade at about 110 miles, see it as a chance to thank their patrons of the Appalachian mountains.
Kingsport Chamber of Commerce employees, who organize the train every year, say that's how it was billed when it was first started by the city's Merchants Bureau Fund in 1943. As the train gained national attention, media reports often focused on the relative poverty of children living in the region.
But the focus of volunteers, donors and participants, is less on the stereotypical poor of Appalachia and more on celebrating the holiday, organizers said.
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"It's a tradition now. It was the only Christmas they'd get. Used to be," said Ed Moore, former Food City store manager and now corporate trainer in Kingsport.
Moore said he has been "bumming" donations for the train for 18 years.
Adults who as children saw the first trains coming through their towns now bring their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to see the train. The same goes for generations of volunteers who have made and donated gifts and packed up candy and treats in Kingsport.
On Wednesday, around 200 people gathered outside the Food City supermarket in Kingsport to stuff boxes and bags full of donated gifts that will be distributed from the train as it winds its way through the mountains.
The volunteers ripped open packaged items and rolled boxes down conveyor lines and into a truck for shipment to the train.
Groups of high school students in letter jackets and grandfathers in University of Tennessee caps seemed to "just fall out of the sky" into the assembly lines, said Marybeth McLain, communications and events coordinator for the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce.
Meanwhile, $200,000 of donations from the Kids Wish Network in Florida were coming by trains to Kentucky. The charity was named a sponsor this year after its first donation last year. CSX employees spent the latter half of the week preparing, decorating and loading the train for its 6:30 a.m. start in Shelby in Pike County.
It takes a year of work to gather the 15 tons of gifts onto the train, McLain said.
"It's so heart-warming," to see children glimpse Santa and get a gift, McLain said. And for volunteers, "It's so heartfelt."