The elves were out in force in a cavernous hall at the Prime Osborn Convention Center, stuffing backpacks full of warm woolen mittens, hats and clothing as well as toys destined to be Christmas gifts for boys and girls.
Next stop for the 15 tons of holiday cheer and necessities packed on Friday in Jacksonville by 180 CSX employees: about 5,600 children across Appalachia during the 81st running of the annual CSX Santa Train on Nov. 18th.
That train will make stops across Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, sponsored by the Jacksonville-based railroad, along with Appalachian Power, a Tennessee chamber of commerce and Soles 4 Souls, a nonprofit that brings new shoes and clothing to people in crisis in the U.S. and Canada. Also providing fresh food at train stops is the Food City supermarket chain.
Taking a break as he loaded toys, hats, gloves, scarves and other needed winter items into backpacks, beads of perspiration on his brow, CSX crew management department head Jack Vierling said this was his 27th time volunteering with co-workers to help the children during the holidays. “I love it.”
“Appalachia is often a forgotten community, ” he said. “It is critical to give back to the communities that we operate through. We’ve been doing this for a long time, and I used to work up there, so I have seen the benefit of this. I have seen the conditions these people live in, and we just can’t do enough to help the people up there.”
The Santa Train was begun in 1943 by a merchant association in Kingsport, Tenn., according to Railfan & Railroad Magazine, running along the scenic former Clinchfield Railroad. Family Lines, then Seaboard System continued the tradition, now carried on by CSX. The only pause was in 2020 and 2021, when the gifts were handed out at drive-through locations along the train route because of the pandemic.
CSX resumed the Santa Train last year, running its traditional 112-mile route from Pikesville, Ky., to Kingsport, Tenn. The backpacks are packed with items organized by age and gender. And the CSX train will be outfitted with classic carriages, with Santa Claus perched on the back to help pass out gifts at each of 13 stops.
“This will be my sixth Santa Train,” CSX spokesman Bryan Tucker said on Friday. “And each time, I am both touched by the generosity of folks who donate their time and the goods that we have here to provide to the folks, but also it’s a realization that there are still areas of this country where there are a lot of folks who are a lot less fortunate than us, and it is important to do what we can to bring some joy, especially around the holiday season.”
As for Vierling, he thinks of how each item he has packed will become a welcome necessity for children he will never meet.
“They are already getting cold up there, so we can’t get this to them quick enough, honestly,” he said. “It is nice to know this is something they will have for a while, something that keeps them warm, keep them from getting cold as they wait for the bus to school…. This is stuff that will keep them healthy.”