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Photos by Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Families board the Santa Train on Saturday at the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society restoration facility at 15808 Edgerton Road.

1,600 board the Santa Train

Mason Baughman, 4, sits on Santa’s lap while riding the Santa Train at the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society.

– Momentarily sitting alone inside a vintage train Saturday morning, Santa Claus found himself in a rare position: fighting for children’s attention.

“They’re more concerned about the train than Santa,” he said as some parents pried their children away from the lookout compartment so they could quickly share their wish lists. “Santa’s just the icing on the cake. It’s really something.”

Although both attractions have been part of the name of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society’s Santa Train, this year’s run highlighted a renewed focus on Santa.

Because of the event’s growing popularity, the society added another caboose to the annual Christmas-themed train ride, said Tom Nitzka, railroad historical society training manager.

More than 1,600 riders boarded the diesel, electric, switch-engine train through the end of Saturday – the third and last date for this year’s Santa Train program, according to a preliminary tally by Kelly Lynch, the society’s communications manager. That final count is nearly double the event’s three-day attendance when it first started about 13 years ago, Nitzka added.

By noon Saturday, a line of nearly 50 ticket holders waiting for the next train stretched toward the back of the society’s restoration facility in New Haven, almost bumping into a closed-off work area.

Fort Wayne resident Henry Rivera had no qualms about the increasing wait after stepping off the Santa Train with his wife and children.

“First of all, (we did it) because he loves trains,” Rivera said, motioning toward his 3-year-old son. “And that’s the first thing we know that has trains close to home.”

Saturday marked the first Santa Train rides for Fort Wayne resident Dan Farrimond and his 2-year-old grandson, who he described as “in love with the trains.”

Farrimond said he was especially pleased with how affordable the entire experience was – $4 per rider – when compared with other city draws like the zoo or, during less chilly days, public swimming pools. He also hailed what he viewed as a dying breed of a Christmas attraction in the Midwest.

“Especially when looking online, there aren’t that many,” Farrimond said. “It’s a novelty. For them to have something like this in Fort Wayne, I’m very grateful.”

The event itself is a modern-day ode to a holiday tradition pioneered by landmark department store Wolf & Dessauer, which sponsored a similar train ride into downtown Fort Wayne more than 50 years ago.

Nitzka said the Santa Train combines that nostalgic memory with a wintertime project for society members, who at one time only coordinated summer excursions.

Plus, the overall concept is a refreshing variation on the typical Santa sitdowns happening at malls across the country this time of year, he added.

“The reason we started it is it’s a unique way to visit Santa in a unique setting,” Nitzka said.

In between reminding passengers of his cookie preferences – snickerdoodles – the bearded icon seemed to agree with Nitzka’s description.

“It’s a lot different,” Santa said. “The train is fascinating. It’s something none of these kids have ever done.”