Last updated on: May 6, 2013
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Photos by: Judy Sullivan Gailey

SCE_locoBack in the summer of ’93, the employees of the Burlington Northern Railroad in Springfield, Mo. created a Christmas train that in just a few short years managed to garner a following and appeal that was attaining almost epic proportions.

From a brief five stop two-night tour that first year, the popularity of the train was so profound that within five years the train was making over 64 stops in seven states over a twenty-three days.  In those grand years, more than a half a million people braved the cold to see the train’s arrival. 

With a majority of the stops in small rural towns with a population of less than five thousand, it was not uncommon to have a crowd more than twice the population of the entire town waiting for the train to arrive.

SCE_boxHow could a Christmas train garner a following like this in just a few short years?  Well, with more than 27,000 lights and a sound system with more than 120,000 watts of stereo power it was truly a sight to behold.  You could see the glow of the train from more than a mile away and hear the Christmas music from over a half a mile.  But one simply had to witness this phenomenon and be fortunate to experience the train passing by or pulling into town to fully understand and appreciate the appeal.

It wasn’t just the lights and sounds that made the Santa Claus Express so popular, it was the total experience that helped to garner the affection shown.  Santa would arrive into town riding in his sleigh and greet everyone as the train was coming to a stop.  He would then get down and greet each of the children waiting to see him.  At the same time, the crew of the Santa Claus Express would hand out SCE_tankcandy to the kids while they waited and sometimes 8 tons of candy was not enough.  All the while this was happening, entertainers from around the Ozarks and Branson, Mo. would sing Christmas music to entertain everyone.

But the Santa Claus Express did not simply appeal to children.  The Santa Claus Express had that underlying ability to bring out the child in everyone, no matter how old you were.  It was not uncommon to see grandma and grandpa standing in the crowd with big smiles on their faces or dancing to the Christmas music with no sign of grandchildren anywhere around.  Quite simply, the Santa Claus Express was the kind of experience that dreams are made of.

The Santa Claus Express was not simply a December experience for a lot of the crew of the train.  Preparation for the tour started in the spring and by fall work began on preparing the train by building SCE_stageand/or cleaning the various components.

Then after the tour started, there were the daily chores of changing out burned out light bulbs and moving supplies back to the caboose for the evening program of stops.  No easy task with over 27,000 lights of various sizes and manufacturers.  There was also the need to fuel the generator that powered everything and burned hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel each day.  And then there was always the assortment of little problems and gremlins that might have crept up the night before.

It was hard work entailing sixteen to twenty hour days during the 23 day tours, but the reaction of the people when we pulled into town made it all worth while and any question of why we would put SCE_sleighourselves through something like this, would quickly fade away.

Entertainers on the Santa Claus Express varied from year to year and even could even vary from day to day.  It could be a daunting task to choreograph the show in one afternoon, but we always seemed to make it work.

Through the eight years that the Santa Claus Express ran, there were usually those entertainers who would either work the entire tour or come back year after year.  The Lowe Sisters from one of the first familys of entertainers in Branson were with us for most of the time the train ran, as was Huey Smith.  SCE_cabAnd there were numerous others who’s name would not be recognizable to most, but their faces will become recognizable in the images.

There was no single part of the Santa Claus Express that one could say was the reason for its popularity.  It had to go beyond something physical to garner the kind of admiration that the Santa Claus Express enjoyed.  As one person experienced after videoing the train passing for the umpteenth time, he turned around to me and exclaimed,  “It’s magical!”

I was fortunate enough to be apart of the Santa Claus Express from the very beginning to the end in 2000.  It managed to instill in me an appreciation and love of the Christmas Season that will remain with me always.  And even though it has now been many years since the Santa Claus Express last ran, its memories can still make the hair on the back of my neck stand up and tingle. 

Yes, the Santa Claus Express was magical!