Gathering to see Claus & his conveyance

Vancouver crowd is glad to see Santa, but just as thrilled to check out his antique steam locomotive

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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Neither bitter cold nor biting rain could stop Santa Claus' trip by train.

And his journey was rewarded Saturday morning as children and adults alike cheered through the rainy weather when Santa waved from the railing of the vintage SP&S 700 locomotive.

The eighth annual arrival of Santa's steam locomotive in Vancouver saw around 2,000 folks, bundled in rain gear, line up to board the old black engine that billowed steam from its mighty stacks. Most were there to see Santa, and ask him for a gift or two.

Kevin Baker, a train master with BNSF Railway, brought his two sons to the event. Preston, age 7, and Parker, 4, have grown up around the railroad, but this was an exciting trip to their dad's work.

"I really love seeing Santa so much," Preston said. "I don't know what I'm going to ask him yet. I think an iPad. Or an iPhone."

"An iPad?" Kevin Baker said to his son. "How about a bike?"

"Yeah, that too," Preston said while his father laughed.

Kevin Baker has come to the station for Santa's arrival every year since the beginning, back when this was intended to be a surprise just for railroad employees. But as the story goes, word got out into the community that the 1938 steam engine would serve as Santa's sleigh during the employee Christmas party. The rail yard filled with members of the community, and the railroad realized it had an event on its hands.

"We brought the steam train in, and lo and behold, there were members of the public," said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas. "Right then and there we decided this would be an event we would hold every year for the community."

It's a unique event, for Santa to arrive by steam train. Vancouver is the only stop on Santa's line, and the railroad doesn't have another event like it in the company.

The railroad also teams up with Beaches Restaurant and Frito Lay to provide hot dogs and chips for those waiting in line. The Marines are there collecting for Toys For Tots. A railroad safety truck is also set up, and a train simulator allows people to play around a bit.

The big attraction, of course, is Santa. But not everyone came to see the gregarious gift-giver from the north.

Ted Ostlund stood with his 9-year-old son Bode on the other side of the tracks during the event, admiring the beastly engine.

Bode smiled and laughed as he tried to explain why he was more interested in the train. He shrugged his shoulders a bit and said, "It's just fun. It's the steam I like."

His father said the quiet boy "likes Santa, but he doesn't like waiting in line." And the two agree the train itself is just as much a marvel as old Mr. Claus.

The 111-foot-long, 440-ton engine was saved from the scrap yard at the last minute after being retired in 1958. It was then donated to the city of Portland as a moving historical monument. In its heyday, the train could get up to 100 mph with a full head of steam. It is currently maintained by the Pacific Railroad Preservation Association.

Erik Hidle: 360-735-4547; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov; erik.hidle@columbian.com.