Book Review: Virginia’s Legendary Santa Trains by Donna Strother Deekens And Doug Riddell (Four Stars)

Virginia’s Legendary Santa Trains by Donna Strother Deekens And Doug Riddell

Four Stars out of Five

A nostalgic look at the collaboration of local Virginia stores and railroads to create a short-lived but memorable Christmas tradition. Almost all the characters—corporate and personal—involved are gone now, but Deekens and Riddell trace the inception, growth, decline and demise of Santa Trains from their start in 1955 by Cox department store in Ashland, Virginia partnering with the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P) Railroad. Then regional giant department store Miller & Rhoads ran with the idea, until the advent of Amtrak in 1971 killed special trains. A few recent attempts to continue the tradition are mentioned.

Well-documented, lovingly done, but needed a professional editing. Many chapters read like separate stories repeating previous information multiple times. Much speculation and reminiscing, but—hey—that’s what the book’s about. Lots of pictures.

Quibble: While the status of women in the mid-twentieth century is mentioned several times, the plight of people of color is largely ignored. This despite the included photographs of the Santa Trains being integrated even in the 1950s.

They also dance dangerously close to revealing too much information about Santa.

I would normally give it three stars (signifying “I liked it” but not “I really liked it”) until I noticed it had not been reviewed or rated on It deserves more attention than a three star rating would garner. (Please excuse my local pride.)

Speaking of giving credit where due, I found this gem at Bell, Book and Candle, an independent book store on South Railroad/Center Street in Ashland, just a few doors down from the former Cox department store, now the Iron Horse Restaurant. (Good eating while you watch passenger and freight trains on the main north-south tracks on the east coast.) Both deserve a visit. In fact, take a two-minute side trip off I-95 Exit 92 at Ashland, VA and drive west on England Street, treat yourself to a cruise south and back north along the historic center of Ashland, where businesses and homes face the railroad rather than away from it. Visitor’ Center in the 1922 train station, which is still an active AMTRAK stop.

“Santa Claus is coming to town” … on a train! Merry Christmas!