Niles River Santa sets sail

Published 10:46 am Tuesday, December 1, 2020

NILES — On the St. Joseph River between the W. Main Street and Grant Street bridges can be seen a festive sight: Santa, complete with his face mask and his sleigh, being led by reindeer and Christmas tree.

The tradition of the Niles River Santa has been in place since 1962, according to Mike Peters, owner of East Main Gardens.

“It was for the children’s wing of the hospital that faced the river, at the time,” Peters said. “[The original volunteers] thought it would be really nice to have something for them for Christmas.”

The tradition even persisted through the President Richard Nixon era from the late 1960s to early ‘70s, when Christmas lights were limited.

“The only two lights in Niles were the big [Christmas] tree on 11th and Oak streets, and the Santa in the river,” Peters said. “The community wanted that lit.”

On Sunday, community volunteers helped deliver a rebuilt Santa and sleigh after the festive decorations sustained a harrowing journey at the end of the last holiday season.

“With the way it was built this year, we put a lot of new improvements on it, so hopefully this float will last a very, very long time,” said Niles resident and “Santa’s Helper” Erika Pickles. “Our goal is to keep this going through my lifetime. Once our children are old enough to do this, they’ll be the next generation to do this.”

Pickles is the third generation to be working on the Niles River Santa, after her father, Larry, began working as the second generation himself on it.

The Santa on this year’s raft is nearly identical to the Santa damaged in last year’s mishap. This year’s Santa was given a refreshed coat of paint by volunteer Sheila Frost.

Last year’s high waters meant a swift current and logs coming down the St. Joseph River,  Pickles said.

“This is the first time we’ve had to completely rebuild it from the ground up,” she said. “We knew last year, once we pulled it out of the water that we were going to have to do it. There was just way too much damage. We were able to save the tree, thank goodness.”

Pickles was one of the group members working to pull the raft from the river last year, after the Hunter Ice Festival wrapped up.

As the St. Joseph River’s waters rose, the current sped up.

“Logs kept getting tangled on the raft,” Pickles said. “We figured something would take it out. There were trees floating down the river. We thought, ‘we have to go out there and get it before there’s more damage.’”

Pickles said as she and three others were on the pontoon, beginning to cut the tangled chains loose, the operation hit a snag.

“We hit one bad hiccup, and the whole thing sank,” Pickles said. “There were four of us on it, and it was beginning to sink. We flew to the other boat. It could have been so much worse.”

The four jumped onto the boat next to the pontoon right before it submerged in the river.

“It was completely underwater,” Peters confirmed.

Peters said the set up seemed to hit the bottom of the river and pop back up.

After the pontoon popped back up from the current, the volunteers rushed over to finish getting it out of the water.

“Once we finally got it on land, we knew this was going to be basic rebuild from the ground up,” Pickles said. “We were hesitant to reach out to the community, but we knew the extensive damage and what it would take.”

Pickles said the community came together and helped make this year’s River Santa possible.

“It has been mostly residents donating,” Pickles said. “There were some businesses that chipped in. Lowes has always been a big contributor year in and year out.”

Pickles said there were also donations from former Niles residents who had since relocated to other parts of the country.

“There were people who contacted us, who saw what happened and sent us checks,” Pickles said.

This year, the newly rebuilt Santa and sleigh will navigate the St. Joseph River in front of Spectrum Health Lakeland Hospital Niles until the first week of January, weather permitting.

After last year’s harrowing adventure, both Peters and Pickles were grateful for assistance from the Howard Township and Niles City fire departments this year.

“We appreciate everything they did,” Pickles said. “We got it done so fast. We felt a little bit safer this.”