Above: The restoration team poses with recently Clinchfield Railroad F3A #800 at the CSX Shops in Huntington, West Virginia. Photos and story provided by Ron Flanary.
As a life-long resident of southwestern Virginia, the annual Santa Train has been a part of my life for nearly 50 years. Through the years, I’ve been honored to ride along as a guest of the railroad, or a media representative on several occasions. My first ride was in 1982, the last year the Santa Train was a Clinchfield Railroad operation. Of all the experiences with the train, nothing eclipsed the 50th Anniversary running, when Union Pacific sent Challenger #3985 all the way from Cheyenne, Wyoming to Kingsport, Tennessee. It was in the works for four years, while many people secretly tried to put the proposal together. When it actually happened, it was an overwhelming experience.
Below: A roster shot of Clinchfield #800 after being revealed by CSX on November 6th, 2017.
With the 75th running of the train coming this year, there was already much speculation on what might be on the head end. I was contacted about a year ago by CSX and Jim Wrinn, editor of Trains Magazine. I was enlisted to find, if possible, an original 1948 EMD paint diagram for the unit. With help from some contacts, that was accomplished. What followed for the next several months were discussions about color specs and so many small details. Calls were made to retired Clinchfield engineers in come cases, leaving them wondering what was up.
My personal role was minor compared to the folks with Southern Appalachian Railway Museum in Oak Ridge, TN, and Charlie Poling of East Tennessee Rail Car Services. They were doing the same type of work on an ex-SCL SD45 to renumber and letter it as Clinchfield #3632. A project of this nature can hit obstacles one would never dream of. Some 30 volunteers, plus many CSX employees at Huntington worked away in a stealth-like manner to ready these locomotives and make certain they could lead the train. And, everyone remained quiet, because there was no reason to raise false expectations with so many issues to overcome.
Ultimately, it happened. As stood beside the unit in the Huntington paint shop a few weeks ago and talked to some of the paint shop employees, you could hear the pride in their voices. The charts and photos I had sent were taped to the wall, and notes were written on details I had provided. But, compared the long man hours of work performed by the volunteers at Oak Ridge and CSX workers, my contribution was minor.
I saw these units when they ran like this in everyday service. I stood on the overhead walkway at Kingsport, TN as five F-units rolled beneath me. You could feel the heat from the exhaust and watch the cooling fans as the turned. Now, see the #800 in its original guise. For me, Christmas 2017 has already been a winner. I just can’t wait to see her rolling along the former Clinchfield main again—a great sight for my sore eyes!
Ron Flanary of Big Stone Gap, Virginia has been a fan of the Clinchfield as long as he can remember. A noted railroad photographer, painter, musician, and railroad historian, Flanary grew up watching trains on the famous coal-hauling route.
See our video from 2016’s Santa Train trip over the Clinchfield below.