story and photos by Emily Hilley-Sierzchula special to The City Wire
Around 2,000 people from all over the region braved icy roads and bone-chilling temperatures Saturday (Dec. 7) to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus aboard the 10th annual Children’s Christmas Train.
Once an hour, the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad ran five cars along a 45-minute round trip route from Springdale to Johnson. Each car on the Christmas Train carried about 300 people, every child eager to meet the Claus’ and have their photograph taken.
The weather did impact the event, said Brenda Rouse, passenger train operations manager for the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad. The Ugly Christmas Sweater Run, Breakfast with Santa and a few exhibits in Santa’s Village and Workshop were canceled. A few vendors could not show up and fewer volunteers participated.
“However, people are coming out and the cars are filling up,” she said.
“We raised $30,000 last year to donate to the charities, and we’re hoping for the same this year,” Rouse said. “All of that goes directly toward our charities.”
Michael White, 81, has been the Christmas Train Santa for seven years.
“I’ve been doing Christmas endeavors in my red suit for 67 years,” White said. “I don’t think about it as ‘playing’ Santa. Every chance I get to share joy and innocence with children, it brings joy to me.”
Members of the Arkansas-Boston Mountain chapter of the National Railway Historical Society have been on hand since the first Children’s Christmas Train event.
“Children get to run this model train, and they get really excited about that,” said NRHS member Gary McCullah. “It’s a memory they get to leave with.”
The Christmas Train event has changed over time. The railroad has been running Children’s Christmas Trains for more than 20 years, Rouse said.
“The event has grown since J.B. Hunt employees got involved 10 years ago,” she said. “We’ve seen ridership, activities, and community involvement increase through the years.”
Many volunteers at the event are J.B. Hunt employees and their families, Rouse said.
Charities that benefited from the Children’s Christmas Train are the Children’s Safety Center, Circle of Life Hospice Children’s Bereavement Program, CASA For Children, and the EOA Children’s House.