Skipping the sleigh to ride the rails to Skagway

Posted: Sunday, December 24, 2000

S anta Claus arrived in Skagway by iron horse rather than reindeer, heralded by train whistles instead of jingling bells. And as one child observed, he smells like diesel fuel.

Like many communities, Skagway combines the traditions of Christmas with its history - in this case, a railroad town - to celebrate the holidays. Instead of a small-scale model train, the kids of Skagway get to ride a real one along with Santa.

More than 100 people were waiting for the Santa Train as it pulled into the downtown depot at noon on Dec. 16. It was cold and blustery, with a wind chill factor of about minus 25, but it didn't take long for the kids to warm up to the guy in red, white and black.

"Both of my girls gave him a big hug without me prodding them," said John O'Daniel, whose daughters Kaylie, 7, and Hannah, 4, finally found the courage this year to sit on the lap of the jolly one. "Hannah complained that Santa smelled a little like diesel fuel."

The Skagway Santa has been known to change tires at a local service station and deliver home heating fuel, valuable gifts in a town that's known as the "home of the north wind."

O'Daniel is also a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, which sponsors the event along with the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway and the United Transportation Union, representing the train crews.

The Elks, who helped locate Santa and two of his benevolent and protective elves, also put together 130 goody bags loaded with fruit, chocolate and candy canes. White Pass provided two diesel locomotives, five parlor cars and a depot decorated for Christmas, while the UTU employees volunteered their time.

"We went out the day before to clean the switches of ice and clear the track of snow, rocks and trees," said Lee Hartson Sr., who has been the conductor of the Santa Train for more than 10 years. The train crew also showed up a few hours early on Saturday to fire up the stoves and prepare the toilets in each parlor car, and then buckle together the engines and cars.

The tradition of the Santa Train goes back many years. It was running when Hartson started in train service in 1965.

"The kids really enjoy it," he said. "It was darn cold (on Dec. 16), but they all turn out, rain or shine or whether it's howling and darn chilly."

After the train pulled in, the kids got their goody bags and photos taken with Santa. About 95 passengers, including families from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, boarded the train for a 17-mile ride.

"We gave them soft drinks, and Santa and his elves accompanied them to Clifton (about 8.5 miles up the hill toward the White Pass summit near the Canadian border) and back, about an hour round-trip," said White Pass vice president Gary Danielson.

The big and burly Santa got help finding the steps while getting on and off the train.

"He definitely needed assistance because he can't look down with his belly and beard in the way," said Janilyn Heger, White Pass assistant manager of reservations.

"This is such a neat tradition that attracts an interesting mix of people, from the guy with long hair in Carhartts to the people more formally dressed."

O'Daniel, who grew up in Skagway, never missed a Santa Train as a kid. His grandfather, the late Bruce Boynton, reportedly "played" Santa for decades ... except for one year.

"A friend told me Santa was actually my grandpa," O'Daniel said. "I was so upset I made my grandpa take me up to see Santa that year and then told my friend, 'See, my grandpa is not Santa and Santa is real.' "

Mike Sica can be reached at

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