A trip on the Northwest Railway Museum’s Santa Train is like a magical trip back in time and to the North Pole.
The antique train takes more than 11,000 people on a holiday adventure each year. About 1,500 people ride the Santa Train each day on weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Seven trains run every day with more than 200 people on each train.
The journey begins at the North Bend Depot. Passengers board and take a 20 minute, 3.5-mile long ride on the Snoqualmie Valley Railroad — part of the original 1880s Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern Railway — to the Snoqualmie Depot.
The inside of the cars are festively decorated with lights, garlands and wrapped presents where suitcases would go. While on the train, a conductor over the intercom leads everyone through Christmas carols. Kids everywhere shout, “choo choo!”
At the Snoqualmie Depot, passengers spend about an hour looking at antique trains, enjoying cocoa and cookies out of the kitchen car, exploring the depot’s exhibits, and meeting the head elf (Santa Claus) himself. At the numerous photo opps, children can be heard saying, “Cheese!”
“Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas,” says Santa Claus, who was accompanied by helpers Mrs. Claus and Zoe the oldest elf. “This is just so much fun,” he said.
Kids are thrilled to see him, bouncing with excitement. Each child receives a small gift — this year it’s a wooden train car with the museum’s logo.
Then the passengers reboard the train and return to North Bend.
Families from near and far come to the event each year, like the Turners who were visiting from Yakima. One-year-old Nora and her 3-year-old brother, Owen, were all smiles as they sat with their father, Sam, and grandfather, Rob.
Another little boy, one-year-old Julian Gale, kept popping his head over the back of his chair, giggling and saying hi to the people behind him.
Julian’s mother, Julia Graham, said their family lives in Fremont, and this was their first time on the Santa Train.
She said Julian is old enough now that he seems very interested in the train ride and is clearly enthusiastic. She also said Julian’s 4-year-old brother was really excited about Santa this year, having already written a letter and made a Christmas list.
“This year is fun because they’re both engaged. It’s fun for them together,” Graham said. “It’s a fun family thing.”
Museum executive director Richard Anderson said the joy the train brings to kids is the best part.
“It’s the happy children that come to experience the event,” he said. “For many of them, this is their first experience with Santa, and we’re trying to make it as positive an experience as possible.”
He said it is a tradition for many families whose kids grow up visiting Santa here year after year.
The Northwest Railway Museum, a nonprofit, also has a Railway History Center, located at 9320 Stone Quarry Road in Snoqualmie, with a 24,000 square foot exhibit hall and facilities that showcase artifacts, engines, freight cars and passenger cars. The nonprofit hosts historic train rides regularly on weekends during the April-October season each year.
Anderson said riding the historic train is an example of what it might have been like to travel by train in Washington 100 years ago. Some of the wooden passenger cars were built in 1912 and 1915 and were some of the last built for service, he said. Meanwhile the train’s steel cars are from the beginning of steel construction, and some were in operation until the 1970s.
The locomotive powering the train was a Baldwin engine that Anderson said was built for military use in 1953.
The Santa Train runs through Dec. 21, but it’s basically sold out. The museum sells tickets beginning in August each year, with trains starting to sell out in September.
Anderson said the museum has about 130 regular volunteers and that the Santa Train takes about 30 people to operate each day.
“It’s fun for us, hosting it,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, but anything worth doing is usually going to be a lot of work.”
The first Santa Train event was in 1969 and started as a fun way for the museum to thank the community, Anderson said. The turnout was much bigger than expected.
Other events throughout the year include the Halloween Storytelling Train, the Snoqualmie Wine Train, and special events for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
The museum was founded in 1957, has been in Snoqualmie since about 1961 and has been running public programs since 1967. More information can be found online at trainmuseum.org.