In this People's History, Eleanor Boba remembers the popular holiday-excursion trains sponsored by Seattle's University Village Shopping Center. Each December for about a decade starting in 1956 when the center opened, Santa Claus trains full of hundreds of happy children made round trips from University Village to Kenmore and occasionally Woodinville. The holiday trips ended a few years before the tracks were abandoned, later to be torn out and replaced for much of their length by the Burke Gilman Trail.
Memories of the Santa Train
I recently asked my mother and sister if there really was a Santa Claus train that ran through our Seattle neighborhood when I was a kid. My memory can be hazy, but when I walk along the Burke Gilman Trail in View Ridge I sometimes hear jingle bells.
My sister said, "Yes, the Santa train was real. I went on it with Linda Z., her mom, and some other kids for her birthday one year. Stan Boreson was on it playing his accordion." My mother said:
"Of course I remember the Christmas Train! You 'kids' always wanted to schedule a ride, but I did not feel we should do it every year. It was very exciting for the kids: seeing Santa, receiving little gifts and candy from him, and so on. I guess I had to take you down near the U. Village to get on, and I guess we only did it once or twice, but we thought it was neat to see -- and hear -- it go by. More like the Toonerville Trolley, really!"
Turns out the Santa train of my memory was an annual event staged by the University Village Shopping Center beginning the year that venerable institution opened, 1956, and continuing until the mid-1960s. Starting from a siding near the Blakeley Avenue entrance to the shopping center, the train made several scheduled trips each December along the little-used Northern Pacific track out to Kenmore and, in some years, as far as Woodinville. In at least the first year, a Santa train also brought inner-city children from King Street Station to the Village.
Popular Holiday Excursions
The 60-to-90-minute round trip cost 25 cents per person in the early days, later raised to 50. For four bits passengers were entertained by the likes of local television and radio celebrities Stan Boreson (and his Bassett hound No-Mo), J. P. Patches, and Brakeman Bill. One year Raggedy Ann put in an appearance ... or could that have been a novice reporter's perception of Gertrude, J. P. Patches' girlfriend? Of course, Santa Claus worked the cars, making sure each child received candy and other small treats, such as horns and whistles. If the horns and whistles weren't enough noise, there was plenty of caroling.
A 1963 article in The Seattle Times described the scene at the Village:
"Children squealed with delight as the train pulled into the loading area to begin it first trip. Mothers herded groups of toddlers and other preschoolers aboard. A few fathers went along, too. Some, bearing cameras and obviously "rail buffs," appeared to be enjoying the trip even more than some of the children" (Haigh).
Adults were welcome to ride, but it seems it was possible to pop the kiddies on the train and entrust them to chaperones from local service groups such as the Ryther Four and Twenty Club, giving parents a convenient hour to kill at the mall.
The extremely popular holiday excursions, variously known as Santa's University Village Express, the University Village Christmas Train, the Northern Pacific Village Express, and the Woodinville Express, routinely packed hundreds of kids into about eight train cars with a diesel engine at each end.
In 1963 University Village manager Dick Knapp told a reporter that the shopping center had purchased old coaches, with green or red plush seats, from St. Paul, Minnesota: "It's too bad we couldn't get old steam locomotives, but the railroad just doesn't have them anymore" (Haigh).
Danger on the Tracks!
In 1961 a group calling themselves the Lake City Vigilantes held up the train at Kenmore and "shook down Santa Claus for all he was worth -- five candy canes!," according to The Seattle Times of December 10, 1961. Luckily Santa was able to charm the desperados into giving up their wicked ways and joining in the holiday spirit for the return trip.
Another incident that occurred in 1964 or 1965 was a bit more serious and may have signaled the end of the rides. Greg Galbraith recalls setting out on the train at the age of five or six, accompanied by his two-year old sister. As the train passed through View Ridge it suddenly lurched to a stop and then reversed course and backed up all the way to the Village, ending the trip. Word got around that the engine had hit something on the tracks ... perhaps an automobile?
A few decades later an adult Greg was sharing holiday memories with family when a relative, some 10 years older, mentioned how he and his pals had stacked up construction debris on the train tracks that fateful year, as boys will, to see what would happen!
It appears that 1965 was probably the last year for the Santa Claus train. In 1971 the tracks from Ballard to Kenmore, then owned by Burlington Northern, were officially abandoned. A few years later the rails originally laid in the late 1800s as the Seattle, Lake Shore, and Eastern Railroad were torn up and the corridor, or most of it, became the first section of the Burke Gilman Trail, named for two SLS&E founders.
So, yes, there was a Santa train and in memory it chugs on.