Remember when Ashland was the North Pole? A pair of local authors hopes many people do.
Doug Riddell and Donna Strother Deekens are writing a book about the Miller & Rhoads Santa Trains that ran from the late 1950s through 1971.
The working title is “Virginia’s Legendary Santa Trains: How Miller & Rhoads and Other Stores Brought Christmas to Town on a Rail.”
Their research is in-progress, and they’re looking for baby boomers and/or their parents who want to share memories and photos of their experiences from the Santa Trains’ mid-20th century heyday.
Miller & Rhoads was a Richmond department store that hosted the “real” Santa Claus each Christmas season—and of course he was real, because he knew each child by name, as only Santa himself would.
In the mid-1950s, the RF&P Railroad hired Gene Luck to bolster its declining passenger service. He developed several special train rides, including a new type of Santa Train.
Santa Trains had existed decades earlier elsewhere, but this one would be different. Santa and the Snow Queen would ride the train with the children and greet each one personally.
“Gene thought, suppose Santa got on the train and walked through, greeted the children, and they had a one-on-one with Santa Claus?” Riddell said.
The first year, RF&P teamed up with Ashland’s Cox Department Store to get this Santa Train started. Cox was located in the building currently housing the Iron Horse Restaurant.
“Apparently, it was very successful. Gene Luck was contacted by Miller & Rhoads, or Miller & Rhoads contacted him, and we’re not sure—our research is ongoing—and Miller & Rhoads became involved with it, and they sponsored and sold tickets for the Santa Claus Train from 1957 until 1971,” Riddell said.
Approximately 1,500 people boarded the train at Broad Street, and the children were told they were going to the North Pole to pick up Santa and the Snow Queen.
Ashland was the North Pole. (This was well before former Mayor Dick Gillis discovered that Ashland was the Center of the Universe.)
Santa and the Snow Queen got on at Ashland, and the train proceeded up to Doswell, where it reversed to bring everyone back to Broad Street.
Clowns and musicians entertained during the trip.
When Amtrak took over the passenger service in 1971, it ran the Miller & Rhoads Santa Trains one last year.
Deekens accompanied Santa as a Snow Queen in 1971. She described the atmosphere as “jubilant.”
She has already written a book about her Snow Queen experiences, “Christmas at Miller & Rhoads: Memoirs of a Snow Queen.”
She shared an excerpt: “I remember Santa and I walked from car to car waving to all and greeting children and their parents. We tried to acknowledge everyone, which was great fun, but sometimes challenging. Most children got a pat on the head from Santa. The truly lucky little ones were picked up and held by him. … It was a thrilling, magical event.”
Riddell retired from Amtrak in December, and he’s written about his railroad experiences previously in “From the Cab: Stories from a Locomotive Engineer.”
He said, “This [Santa Train] book is basically going to be the memories. If we can find people that have the memories they would like to share—and boy, if they’ve got pictures…”
Riddell added, “If people will let us borrow their picture, we’ll make sure that nothing happens to it, that they will get it back.”
They’re also looking for information about Cox Department Store, which they’ve learned little about so far.
“I’ve lived in the Richmond area my whole life. I thought I knew Ashland fairly well. I had never heard of J.D. Cox Department Store,” Riddell said.
History Press will publish the book this fall. The authors’ deadline is July for the pictures and August for the text.
Anyone with Santa Train stories or pictures to share should contact Riddell at (804) 798-8239 or email@example.com, or Deekens at (804) 240-8436 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
They would like to have their information compiled by the end of May.
The book is intended to preserve the memories of the Miller & Rhoads Santa Trains.
“It’s such a part of Richmond that we just couldn’t possibly let something like this go,” Riddell said.