Record crowd greets Santa

Nearly 3,000 welcome steam train, with many choosing to stay awhile

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 
photoFestooned with Christmas decorations, the 75-year-old SP&S 700 locomotive steams Saturday toward its destination near the Vancouver Amtrak station.

(/The Columbian)

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Santa's steam train has become a Christmas tradition for a lot of local families, one that can span several generations.

Three-year-old Liam McCann had a nice vantage point in the arms of his grandfather, retired railroader Larry Grant.

Dave Sherman used to bring his dad; now he and wife Maureen bring their five kids.

They were among a throng of 2,800 that showed up Saturday for the ninth annual "Santa's Steam Train" event near Vancouver's Amtrak station.

The enthusiastic turnout eclipsed the previous attendance mark of about 2,100 set last year, said Gus Melonas, BNSF Railway spokesman.

It was officially scheduled from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., but the final visitors didn't leave until 2:20 p.m.

Hefting a big red bag embroidered with "Merry Christmas," Santa Claus climbed down from the cab of the SP&S 700 locomotive at about 11:15 a.m.

But the 75-year-old locomotive wasn't just a steam-powered, 440-ton sleigh. For some folks, it was the bigger attraction.

As some people queued up to see Santa inside his pavilion, others lined up along the railroad track for a chance to see the SP&S (Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway) locomotive up close and personal.

Rowan Vance, 7, and brother Connor Vance, 10, knew what took priority.

"This. It just is," Connor said, as the line slowly moved closer to the locomotive cab.

"It's awesome," Rowan said to a background of hisses and chunks produced by the 5,000 horsepower engine as it idled.

Carla and Larry Grant said they were coming to the BNSF Christmas celebration long before it was a public event. Larry put in 40 years as a train conductor, working the Vancouver-Pasco run, so he and Carla had this on their annual holiday schedule for years.

"Back then, it was for employees only," he said.

Ten years ago, the steam locomotive showed up for the corporate event. Hundreds of curious members of the public came over to see what was going on; it became a public event the following year.

Dave and Maureen Sherman have been regulars ever since.

"This is a unique crowd," she said. "It's not a mall crowd."

Dave and Maureen were accompanied by their five children, including 12-year-old twins Lucy and Grace. Now veterans of this event, the girls let the younger Sherman children know what's going on.

"We tell them that Santa's coming to town," Lucy said.

Santa Claus definitely was not part of Wei Zhuang's background, but he and his kids were on hand again Saturday to take it all in.

"When I came here in 1991, I had no concept of Santa Claus," Zhuang said. Growing up in China, "You just survived."

Three-year-old Sage and Misa, 2, were born here, he said, and this celebration has been a nice way to immerse them in their native culture.

"Last year, Sage cried when the train arrived," Zhuang recalled.

This year, when Santa stepped down from the locomotive cab, the 3-year-old boy was the first person to greet him.

"That was special," Zhuang said.