Monday, December 20, 2010

Santa Took the Train

My hometown has a wonderful railroad history. The Vandalia Line was established in 1847 as the western line of the Terre Haute and Indianapolis Railroad, and the Illinois Central was completed to Vandalia in 1854. By 1905 the Vandalia Railroad Company had combined several different lines, including the St. Louis, Vandalia, and Terre Haute R.R., and the Pennsylvania Railroad held a majority control therein. The railroads made Vandalia a popular stopover for traveling salesmen--the best accommodations, people said, between St. Louis and Indianapolis and between Chicago and Cairo. The first picture shows the former path of the Illinois Central past the downtown grain elevators, and the other two pictures look north and east, respectively, from the intersection of the PRR and Sixth Street.

My parents (born in the 1910s) grew up on Fayette County farms. They remembered that Vandalia was a bustling place to "come in to" during their younger days, as the "Spirit of St. Louis" rumbled into town. My railroad memories are very different, since the trains no longer stopped in town. I recall how we waited and waited in the family car as the lights of the striped railroad crossing guards blinked bright red, and I'd count the passing box cars marked with the interlocking PRR symbol. I also remember a spectacular local train wreck in Vandalia in August 1962, when I was only five.

All this history makes me think of .... Santa Claus. When she was little, my daughter was never keen to visit Santa. We have only one Santa's-lap picture of her, when she was three months old. That day, Santa greeted children in a Sedona, AZ outdoor shopping area, during a 60-degree day. When I was little, I was an eager believer in Santa and looked forward to giving him my "wish list." But strangely I don't remember visiting department store Santas, although I must have.

My fondest Santa memories date from my young but post-belief days, when Santa came to Vandalia and set up shop in the caboose beside the Illinois Central tracks downtown! The caboose was across the street from the track-side grain elevators in the first picture. Though I was too old and too "cool," I loved the idea of going to a caboose! Perhaps the caboose had been used for that purpose during my earlier childhood but I just don't remember now. Still, in my nostalgic adult mind, the idea of Santa taking the train holds more sentimental appeal than even his airborne, caribou-powered sleigh.

Another year, Santa jumped from a small plane (probably from the little local airport), parachuted onto the Vandalia high school football field, and visited children gathered for the event. There is a Jean Shepherd-type story in that, somewhere.


  1. Santa in the caboose is a great and very unique Vandalia story. Thanks for sharing and Merry Christmas!