Appalachia Christmas

The Pit of Christmas – 1953

Today’s guest post was written by John Carlton Templeton.


Santa train from kingston archives

Photo – Archives of the City of Kingsport

“The Pit of Christmas”

By John Carlton Templeton

December 13, 2014

A railroad is a cold being—cold, hard and noisy. Its steely guides run for miles through rural paradises and the backsides of big cities and never speak, never turn to catch a scarlet maple ablaze on a fall morning, never slow to comfort a sodden vagrant asleep under a stack of damp cardboard. The snarling blaze of its of its steam boiler never warms a raggedy mountain family but dismissively urges its massive engine onward through the next crossing, into the next station and beyond. A hissing, spouting, growling, titanic engine drives past flat-footed onlookers splashing icy terror onto their faces. Its pounding pistons and thrashing drive arms can tear through a stalled pickup truck and not slow by a single mph. And yet . . . and yet the merciless chill of an unthinking beast can be turned by the mind and hand of a caring people into a means of hope, a moment of joy and an opportunity for kindness.

At no other time on the calendar are loneliness and deprivation felt more sharply than at Christmas. The season itself for much of America is one of dark, short days, bitter winds and frosty awakenings. For the denizens of Appalachia, despair is a daily battle. Despite the spiritual trappings and rewarding introspection of true Christmas, it is difficult to understate the heartening effects and the psychic warmth generated by modern decorations–tall buildings hosting giant, luminescent stars, parks displaying huge lighted trees and electric reindeer drawing a frolicking sleigh across suburban rooftops.

Such sights are not so common in the isolated mountain communities of Appalachia. Families are large and, though love abounds in such broods, scarcity is often its companion. So it was with my family. Seeking lower rents, my father, a factory worker, had moved Mama and the seven children to a comfortable but spare frame house on a hill overlooking the Holston River in Hawkins County. Uphill about 50 yards, the tracks the Clinchfield Railroad coursed past our house on its way to Kingsport and points south. The winter routine of arising early, getting dressed and trudging across the tracks and over Clark’s Hill to the local three-room schoolhouse two miles away quickly became the order of the day in our new home. A child of eight, of course, does not evaluate the plumbness of walls, the pitch of the floors or the R-value of insulation. A roof and four walls, if it is hosted by a comforting mother and dutiful father, is enough. In winter, childhood friendships and recreation are centered on the school and the weekly gathering at church. School was also the focus of community activities and information. And so it was that from a schoolmate I heard a most fantastic revelation.

“Are you going to meet the Santa Train when it comes?” he asked with the casual assuredness that almost removes any doubt.

In 1953, the Santa Train had already been making its magical journey for ten years. Between Christmas Seasons, the primary purpose of the Clinchfield Railroad was to haul coal out of the mountains of eastern Kentucky to as far south as Spartanburg, SC, from its beginning in Elkhorn City, KY. On its northward journey, it carried, among other things, woven goods from the mills of the Piedmont. A profitable and socially useful enterprise demands no other validation for, as is said in the law, res ipsa loquitur. And yet, the owners of the CRR were intimately aware of the plight of Appalachia. They could see from the coaches of their passenger trains and from the cabs and cabooses of the freights the poverty, the lack of opportunity for jobs and education, the absence of infrastructure and the frailty of the hardscrabble farm culture. Joining with other industrialists and the chambers of commerce of the towns along their route, they undertook to bring a ray of light to the mountaineers. Each year  they would run a train along their route featuring Santa Claus dispensing candy, toys, yuletide music and, of course, the polar laughter of the jolly old elf himself. After consulting with the extroverted eskimo saint, a date near Thanksgiving was chosen for the excursion to avoid cutting into Santa Claus’ busiest month.

I quickly absorbed the history of the Santa Train and promised myself to take part in this enchanting ritual when it next arrived. As the date approached, I grilled friend and family about the details—what time, where to stand, which side of the tracks, how best to pick up the loot, carry a bag or wear an pocketed apron, competition from others—I wanted to know it all and be prepared.

Even at 8 years I was familiar with the railroad bed. The tracks came out of Sensabaugh Tunnel about 300 yards to the right of the path and between the mouth of the tunnel and the crossing at Detour Hill Road, the tracks made a swooping curve that ran about half a mile. There was no room to stand on the high side of the track as the bed was cut into the side of the hill. As the coal-laden trains came out of the tunnel and hit the curve, they were wont to shed a few of the larger lumps of coal that rode uneasily at the top of the load. Over the life of the railroad, this ebony jetsam formed a thick layer of coal along the outside of the tracks giving rise, in turn, to a minor industry for a few of the locals. They dug up the coal placing it in burlap bags to carry home to fuel their fireplaces and Warm Morning heaters.

Principal among the coal-baggers was one Earl Roberts. Earl was the only son in a peculiar family that included three sisters, a mother and a father. To call Earl’s father, Amos, eccentric was to demonstrate the shortcomings of the English tongue. Today’s designation of “weird” comes no closer to being adequate. The reclusive and odd behavior of the family quickly made 14 year-old Earl the butt of many jokes and the victim of a volume of dirty tricks and minor abuse. Chief among the tormenters was my older brother, Ted. Nonetheless, Earl suffered the bullying quietly and almost good-naturedly. He was a tall, somewhat S-shaped lad with black hair that usually hung over one eye causing him to repeatedly sling his head in a circular motion to send it back to the top of his head. His teeth were white but large yet not easily contained by his bulbous lips. Earl was the ultimate outsider. Local hearsay had it that his family was Melungeon. Despite the inconsiderate treatment by Ted, he was not reluctant to stop by our house as he trekked up to or back from the coal pit on dark winter’s days. Many times he would arrive conveniently at suppertime and, though we had precious little food to spare, Mama would cut a large block of cornbread and butter it. Earl would eat it as he warmed his hands by the cookstove. Refreshed, he would thank Mama quietly and head for the front porch where his coal sack awaited. Then, heaving the sack of coal over his shoulder, he would trudge into the night disappearing down the hill to the Roberts homestead by the river.

The Santa Train was scheduled to arrive at our area between 9:30 and 10 AM on November 28th. On the designated day, my brother, David, and I rose early, got dressed and with much anticipation made our way up the hill to the Clinchfield tracks. A thin layer of snow covered the ground. To our right, near the tunnel’s mouth, a small gaggle of folks was already in place. Another larger group had gathered to our left near the crossing at Detour Hill. While David moved to the left, I reckoned that, if I got closer to the tunnel but on the outside of the crowd, I’d get a good shot at some of the first bounty thrown from the caboose. After a brief wait, I could hear the flat black steam locomotive hutcha-hutcha-ing into the tunnel. The quavering wail of the whistle echoed through the tunnel and, suddenly, an ominous storm-cloud of black smoke cut by a streak of pure-white steam issued from the vent and out of the cloud the rounded end of the engine emerged lustily clanking and puffing from the tunnel.

Though it seemed to move at a crawl, it had soon loped past the first crowd. I saw a cloud of small items—Yuletide manna—spew from the back of the caboose as the crowd seemed to concentrate into a single being near the tracks. In my eagerness to get my share, I ran toward the crowd instead of holding my chosen spot. Running against the flow of the train, I suddenly realized that the caboose was swooshing past me. Still no goods! I whirled on a heel and gave chase but Santa Claus was already turning his attention to the next crowd at the road crossing. I sprinted after the shrinking train, quickly reaching a blazing pace and then, Whap! The ground disappeared from under my feet; a ragged, lumpy, black maw swallowed me up like a circus seal quaffing a fish. In my lust for loot, I had forgotten Earl’s coal pit. Disgusted, defeated, deflated, wet and covered with a black film, I dragged myself out of the pit and started for home disconsolately carrying an empty sack. Up ahead, the jubilant crowd began to turn its attention away from the receding train and toward their Christmas loot. Smiling and moving with an agitated pulse, they compared bags and held up items I could not identify from afar.

I realized that I was not so much disappointed as I was angry . . . with myself. It wasn’t the failed planning. It wasn’t the dropped pass. It wasn’t envy of the others. There was something else. As I searched my mind for a definition of what I was feeling, I saw a form separate from the crowd and walk toward me. At first, I thought it was David but, no, I had already seen him start down the path for home probably thinking I was ahead of him. By the bobbing gait, I soon realized that it was Earl Roberts. He drew near, the crowd had largely disappeared, and stood in front of me.

“Johnny, I seen you fall. That there was my pit. I shor am sorry. Did you hurt yourself?” He asked.

“No.” I stammered. “I just . . . I don’t know. I guess I just got caught up in it. I made too much of it. I don’t know.”

Earl had already gone well beyond his usual word count. Thrusting a brown paper bag at me, he continued.

“Here, you take this. Hit ain’t now use to me. My daddy calls sweets foolishness an’ I reckon they are. He won’t let ‘em in the house. I’ll just take a few pieces in my pocket for my sisters an’ you can have the rest. You can have that tin pistol, too. My daddy’ll just say I stole it. You okay to git home?”

“Yeah, I’ll be alright. Thanks, Earl.” I said absently.

I was stuck in my shoes. Something big had just happened and my meager try to understand it wasn’t getting anywhere. But I knew it was something I’d remember.

He turned and set out for home with no further comment as I stood and watched his peculiar gait carry him to the path and down the hill empty-handed.

Christmas, 1953.  St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, Santa Train . . . St. Earl.


I hope you enjoyed John’s writing as much as I did!


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  • Reply
    Grandma Cate
    December 24, 2018 at 10:29 pm

    What a wonderful story wonderfully told!
    Thank you!

  • Reply
    Perri Morrison Smith
    December 24, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    I’ve been told the stories of the coal train coming through Marshall and slowing down enough so that the most agile of youngsters could climb up on the coal cars and toss the chunks down to their waiting families. The engineers knew that a chunk or two of coal meant the difference between warmth on a cold mountain night and freezing to death in a ramshackle house. There are still remnants of coal in our backyards here from those days. Bless those railroad folks and their humanity to the poorest of us. I hope you and yours have a blessed Christmas, Tipper. With love from the riverbank (and train tracks) here in Marshall.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    December 23, 2016 at 11:17 pm

    I can remember when the Parson of the Hills came the Almond School and handed out donated toys, clothes, food, blankets and whatever else he could talk his donors out of. When I moved away from Swain County, I didn’t forget him and when I became internet savvy enough I looked him up. He had died in 1995 in a nursing home not too far from here.
    Here is a New York Times article written about him
    Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus! His real name is Charles Keyes. He was born in West Virginia but lives in heaven now.

  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    December 23, 2016 at 8:49 pm

    What a nice story, and what a sweet thing for Earl Roberts to do!!!
    One of our grandfathers worked at a railroad crossing for a time. His job was to make sure to keep snow and ice off of the tracks between his crossing and the next one so they wouldn’t hinder or upset the train. When there was ice, he’d build a fire to heat up the rails to melt the ice off. I remember hearing him tell about railroad workers tossing shovels full of coal down to the poor who picked it up along the tracks. He said it meant so much to the poor, many of whom were WW1 widows with children, and so little to the railroad. That story always stuck with me thinking about being that poor.
    Prayers for anyone in that situation nowadays…and yes, there still are some. Let’s remember them especially here at Christ’s birthday.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    December 23, 2016 at 2:57 pm

    A well written Christmas story by John Templeton and another great storyteller. We got several of ’em here in Appalachia.
    Way before I was born, my mama’s daddy, Elihu Passmore (everyone called him Hugh) was the Section House Foreman from Asheville to Murphy. Mama said there were over 300 families that lived in Nantahala at the time and the Railroad built all these little shacks for their employees. She showed me where a lot of these houses were, but like everything else has passed into History. And her mama fed lots of hobos during the Depression Years, who stopped by for a bite to eat. My grandma fed all these Hobos, even tho she had 16 children of her own. …Ken

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    December 23, 2016 at 11:02 am

    That is a wonderful story. My father in law worked for CSX Railroad for many years hauling coal out of KY and West VA. He was an engineer and drove the Santa Train on several occasions. He tells about the adults and kids lined up along the tracks waiting for them to pass with their gifts of food and toys. I can’t wait to pass this story along to him.

  • Reply
    December 23, 2016 at 10:53 am

    Thanks to John Templeton for this beautifully written story about human kindness. It is almost magical sometimes when something becomes a forever memory. Kindness or mean spirited can either one become that memory you cannot shake. It makes me look back with regret that I could have made things a little better for some of the children living on the fringes.

  • Reply
    Kenneth Ryan
    December 23, 2016 at 10:50 am

    That was a great story. I’m glad you posted it today.

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    December 23, 2016 at 10:36 am

    I remember Earl. That he gave my little brother his gatherings from the train is, as I recall, typical of him. Thank you, Tipper, for sharing John’s story.

  • Reply
    December 23, 2016 at 9:46 am

    Lovely story. Wonder what came of Earl – seems like a very sweet soul.

  • Reply
    Betty Louise Saxon Hopkins
    December 23, 2016 at 8:54 am

    What a wonderful, heart-warming story! Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD
    December 23, 2016 at 8:46 am

    Tipper: It is early morning and mighty quiet in our house. But your post made for good reading, while I am just waiting for the gas logs to warm the room and me! Hope your Christmas is near PERFECT! We will be with our long legged grandsons (THREE FELLOWS!!!) for a wonderful visit!
    Best of the NEW YEAR to you and your family!
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    December 23, 2016 at 7:29 am

    Well spoken! Life in this human realm is an odd thing . New information can come from the strangest places. One must really pay attention to get it!

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