Saturday, December 19, 2009

This Santa drives a train

“On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen!” may have a better ring than “On, Weyerhaeuser Timber #6! On, Coach NP X-46 and Caboose NP 1203!” But train, not sleigh, was the transportation of choice for Brian Norvell, Santa Train’s very first Santa.

The year was 1969. During warmer months, the Puget Sound Railway Historical Association offered steam train rides for a dollar. Brian’s mother Hazel Norvell and other members of the Women’s Auxiliary conceived of Santa Train as a way to thank the community for its support during the past year. (Women’s auxiliaries were a sign of the times.) They had no idea how many people to expect, but if they charged 25 cents a ticket and if maybe 500 people showed up, it would serve as a fundraiser, too.

So one Sunday in December, Hazel prepared hot chocolate in a stationary kitchen car (NP X-127, a car configured with a coal stove and eating area for railroad workers), and Brian a.k.a. Santa headed down the hill on board the train in hopes of greeting a few folks.

And 1,800 people showed up.

Families rode the train with Santa up the hill on a spur where Snoqualmie Parkway is today and disembarked for cocoa and cookies. (Says Brian, “I felt like a sardine getting squooshed out of the car.”) They stayed as long as they liked, singing carols around a bonfire. Trains came and went. Cookies and hot chocolate ran out, and the Women’s Auxiliary ran all over town in search of more.

The event expanded to two Sundays the next year and two weekends the third year. Guests visited Santa, now seated in an overstuffed chair in a stationary bunk car, and then walked through to the kitchen car for treats. In 1973, Santa handed out candy canes from a big chair on a platform in a combine car’s baggage room that volunteers decorated with leaded glass chandeliers and a tree.

Norvell qualified as a locomotive engineer in 1968. So after sitting for hours in his Santa chair, he enjoyed wrapping up the event by taking over as engineer for the last run. He invited the final family of the day, after they had waited so long to visit him, to ride with him in the locomotive as Santa engineered the train down the hill.

Brian’s parents, sister, wife and children have all contributed to Santa Train’s success. Norvell speaks of the incredible dedication and devotion of volunteers, especially in those early days when they worked entirely outdoors (which was “pretty brutal”), monitoring pipes during freezing weather so they would have running water, making sure there was enough firewood. What a change from today, he notes, with a fully restored depot and new buildings under construction. “It’s wonderful to see the dream we all dreamt as teenagers finally coming to fruition,” Brian says. “That’s awesome.”

Then he muses about this year’s 40th annual Santa Train, “We probably have grandkids of those who sat in my lap.” In fact he’s right. You can read about that here. Santa Brian and his mother started one fine tradition.

Photo: Santa Train's very first Santa Brian Norvell (right) poses with the 40th annual Santa Train's Santa.

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