Jacksonville – November 3, 2023
In a vast hall at the Prime Osborn Convention Center in Jacksonville, Santa’s elves were hard at work, filling backpacks to the brim with warm woolen mittens, cozy hats, clothing, and delightful toys destined to bring joy to boys and girls on Christmas day.
The next stop for this heartwarming cargo, consisting of a whopping 15 tons of holiday cheer and essential items, was the 81st annual CSX Santa Train, set to chug through the picturesque Appalachian region on November 18th. This train, proudly sponsored by Jacksonville-based CSX, will make stops at various destinations across Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, bringing smiles and festive spirit to approximately 5,600 children.
This annual tradition is not a one-company show; it’s a collaborative effort. Alongside CSX, other partners like Appalachian Power, a Tennessee chamber of commerce, and Soles 4 Souls, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing new shoes and clothing to those in need in the U.S. and Canada, play a crucial role. To ensure no one goes hungry, the Food City supermarket chain also provides fresh food at train stops.
For the 180 CSX employees who dedicated their time to load the backpacks with toys, hats, gloves, scarves, and other winter necessities, this act of giving is a long-standing tradition. Jack Vierling, head of CSX’s crew management department, took a moment to catch his breath amid the cheerful chaos. He shared that this was his 27th time volunteering for this heartwarming cause, and he couldn’t be happier about it. “I love it,” he beamed.
Vierling also emphasized the importance of supporting the Appalachian communities, often overlooked by many. “Appalachia is often a forgotten community,” he said, reflecting on his own experiences working in the region. “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 origins of the Santa Train hark back to 1943 when a merchant association in Kingsport, Tennessee, initiated the tradition. The train, which originally ran along the scenic former Clinchfield Railroad, continued under Family Lines and then Seaboard System before being embraced by CSX. The only interruptions were in 2020 and 2021 when the pandemic prompted the gifts to be distributed at drive-through locations along the train route.
In 2022, CSX revived the Santa Train, resuming its traditional 112-mile journey from Pikesville, Kentucky, to Kingsport, Tennessee. The backpacks are meticulously packed, and organized by age and gender, ensuring that each child receives a thoughtful gift. The CSX train is transformed into a festive wonderland, complete with classic carriages and the jolly old man himself, Santa Claus, who delights in personally handing out presents at each of the 13 stops.
CSX spokesman Ryan Tucker, who has been part of this heartwarming tradition for six years, expressed his gratitude for the generosity of those who contribute their time and donations. He also acknowledged the importance of bringing joy to less fortunate areas during the holiday season, reinforcing the spirit of giving and kindness.
As for Jack Vierling, he reflects on the meaningful impact of each item he packs in those backpacks, knowing they will be essential for children he may 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, keeps them from getting cold as they wait for the bus to school. This is stuff that will keep them healthy.”