BELLOWS FALLS—The scent of hot cocoa fills the Chester Depot. A harpist tunes his instrument. Volunteers in red Santa hats fill a basket with candy canes, and Thermoses with drinking chocolate. Santa Claus, bedecked in his professional red velvet suit and white fur trim, leans against the doorframe.
Bill Kopf (a.k.a. Santa) of Hartland reminisces about his boyhood in New Jersey. His grandfather and father started Bridgewater’s fire department. Kopf started as Santa’s helper approximately 30 years ago, handing children bags with candy, a tangerine, and a toy.
“I’ve had years of practice,” he says, smiling.
A gust of wind stirs fallen leaves and sets the plywood candy canes and signs reading “North Pole” to shudder.
A train whistle sounds. Everyone in the station rushes to position.
Train crossing signals blink to life, clanging their warning for travelers on Depot Street to stop for the Green Mountain Flyer, which today is the Santa Express.
The red engine pulling seven cars named for Santa’s reindeer rolls to a stop. The doors open and approximately 375 children and adults fill the station’s platform.
“Santa!” calls a pint-sized traveller.
With that happy cry, filled with the joy of Santa and a belief in flying reindeer and other magic, the Chester train station transforms into the North Pole.
A man holds a little girl up to the window to see Santa. Grownups with cameras and smartphones snap photos of children with Santa faster than he can hand out candy canes.
This year’s Santa Express train ride is the first in a few years, said Gary Fox, event organizer and member of Sustainable Valley Group.
The train ride from Bellows Falls Train Station to Chester was a fundraiser for three local organizations: the Bellows Falls Middle School Band Friends, the Bellows Falls Community Bike Project, and Destination Bellows Falls Sustainable Valley Group.
According to a press release from the organizations, the scenic ride dates to 1964, when millionaire seafood industrialist and rail enthusiast F. Nelson Blount set up Steamtown, U.S.A., a steam locomotive museum that ran steam excursions out of North Walpole, N.H., and Bellows Falls.
The non-profit Steamtown Foundation took over operation following his death in 1967.
Now, after a few years without the ride, the band friends, bike project, and SVG have revived the Santa Express.
According to Fox and volunteer Kevin Lescord, the groups started with rides for 275 at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., both of which sold out, so the organizers added two additional train cars.
Fox said putting the ride on is “a ton of work every day,” but that organizers hope to hold the event next year.
Heidi Lauricella, a fellow organizer, and the mother of two band members, produces an event binder showing planned performances by the Grinch and Cindy Lou Who (of Dr. Seuss fame), a saxophone trio, and a magician.
It’s complicated. Each carriage, entertainer, and time are marked on the schedule, which is certainly impressive-looking. Lauricella joked that this was her “math problem.”
She added that the three organizations prepared some 30 gallons of hot chocolate and more than 800 cookies.
Bradie, a seventh-grader, band member, and today an elf, posed for a photo outside the station with her cousin Keigan, a fourth-grader at Westminster Center School. She said she loved seeing the little kids smile. Many children told her they were going to see Santa.
Their time at the North Pole wound down, passengers climb aboard waiting carriages. Santa climbs into car seven.
Erin Johnson, her husband, Jason, and their son Zander drink hot chocolate and nibble cookies.
They decided to ride the Santa Express as a day out with friends, said Johnson.
“The Grinch was awesome,” she said.
The train’s whistle sounds, the locomotive jerks, and they’re away from the station. Next stop: Bellows Falls!
A little boy holding a cup of cocoa stands to peer from the window. His father steadies him. Santa passes and says hello.
Fox answers his cell phone: “I can’t talk long; I’m a conductor on a Santa train.”
Despite a child separated from his parents and a kid that needed to exit the train for the bathroom at the last minute, the train is on schedule, said Fox.
The elven volunteers cart trays of cocoa and cookies to passengers.
Lauricella takes a break. They’ve run short of hot chocolate, having left some behind at the station.
She said she has started a file filled with lessons learned for next year.
As Santa speaks with kids in the last car, Lauricella says to one of the band members, “Let Santa do his thing. He’s like Oprah for kids.”
The Santa Express rolls along the Connecticut River and into Bellows Falls. After the train reaches its destination, the passengers stream onto the platform. It’s lunch time for many.
“In the hard times we live in now,” said Kopf of playing Santa, “it’s nice to bring a smile to youngsters’ faces.”