Santa Express: L&C Railway's train trip draws 600 passengers

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By Greg Summers

HEATH SPRINGS – Maddie Greene is two-thirds of the way there.

First, she got to ride L&C Railway's Santa Express on Saturday.

Dressed in her snowman sweater with a green polka-dotted red bow, pulling her hair back, Maddie, 5, was dressed for the season as she looked down to check the time on her Dora the Explorer watch.

Her second wish, she said, was getting "in the paper."

Now, with those out of the way, the only thing that's left is a trip to Walt Disney World in Florida.

"I've never rode a train before," she said,while seated at a booth inside the L&C'sHollywood Beach dome car, with her mother Donna and her "Nay-nay" (grandmother) Helen Sowell.

"I've never ridden a train, either, but I've always wanted to," Sowell said. "We've been looking forward to the opportunity to do this."

They weren't alone in that sentiment, either.

An estimated 600 passengers took advantage of the 10.5-mile Christmas-themed train ride between the L&C headquarters on South Main Street to the Heath Springs depot and back again.

Among those who went were Karmin Hance and her children, McKensie Hance and Graham Banks. Hance said she learned about the trip from a co-worker who took the train ride in 2006.

But getting the three tickets wasn't easy for Hance. She stood in line on the steps of the Lancaster County Council of the Arts Gallery for more than two hours on Nov. 17 to get tickets, only to realize that she didn't have enough money with her to pay for them when it was her turn.

"I had to leave and come back after working all night," she said. "But once you get on here, it's worth it."

Along the ride, volunteer host Wendell Rowell said that train rides are a great place to make new friends.

"You'll do it real fast along the route, because chances are as you walk through the cars, you're going to end up in somebody's lap."

The inaugural train ride in 2006 caused a stir when demand for the tickets outnumbered the number of tickets available. So this year, six rides were put together in attempt to accommodate all requests.

"When you consider we sold all the tickets but 21 the first day they went on sale, we could've probably sold out a seventh one, too," said Sylvia Hudson of See Lancaster. "On Nov. 19, those remaining tickets were grabbed up in no time."

See Lancaster, whose mission is to encourage local tourism, sponsors the Santa Express, along with the city of Lancaster, the town of Heath Springs, Comporium Communications and Founders Federal Credit Union.

L&C provides the train and its employees donate their time to man it.

When the train got to Heath Springs, its passengers got a chance to enjoy Winterfest with artists, craftsmen, food, music and inflatables for the children. There were also free mule rides by Ben Snipes through a portion of the county's smallest town, along with a chance for the kids to visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus inside the train depot.

Hance was surprised to see McKensie shake hands with the "Jolly Old Elf."

"That's a big deal," she said of her almost 2-year-old daughter. "We've never been able to get her to get that close to him before."

Snipes said there was plenty to do in Heath Springs this weekend and lauded See Lancaster and the town for its efforts. But Snipes said he wished that more people would've come to Winterfest.

"Everybody seemed to enjoy themselves but you didn;t need a train ticket to come out and have fun," Snipes said. "I hope that's one thing that they will push."

Local craftsman and blacksmith Jim Williams spent much of the day at Winterfest making nails.

"We've had a pretty good time and hopefully I might've inspired a couple of folks to take this up," Williams said.

Just before 6 p.m. and with the sun setting, Karmin, Graham and McKensie boarded the Santa Express for the return trip home to Lancaster. Along the ride back, passengers were able to see several Christmas light displays.

By the time the train pulled into the depot, McKensie was fast asleep, but Graham was still going full blast.

"Mama, we gotta do this again next year," Graham said.