Wisdom and Grace: A cold Christmas Eve on Amtrak


Last updated 12/5/2022 at 9:40am

Courtesy photo

Gertrude Whaley enjoys a warmer day than Christmas Eve in 1983.

Note: I recently found this article written for the Havre Daily News that my mother Gertrude Whaley wrote about in 1983.

Due to family circumstances, I must travel by Amtrak from Havre to Portland, Oregon.

I was to leave Havre December 23 at 3 p.m. Due to severe weather conditions the train did not leave Havre until 2 a.m. on the 24th. The Amtrak crew had fought the severe cold all the way from Chicago, and in many places, they could only go 35-40 miles per hour. It was 35 degrees below when I finally left Havre. Many things had happened all the way, from broken rails and frozen pipes to a heart attack victim.

Due to severe winds in the Columbia Gorge, the train was routed to Seattle and there they put us on another train and took us to Portland some 23 hours late.

I just want to say that the Amtrak crew and officials, they treated every one of their passengers royally and were very courteous. They did everything they could to make their passengers comfortable. Many of us spent Christmas Eve on Amtrak instead of with our families. Santa was even aboard.

Our coach was like a family. Everyone visited, and no one complained but took it as circumstance and appreciated that our comfort and safety were considered.

Several in the coach got together and composed these two poems. Thank you, Amtrak crew, for doing your job so well.

Sincerely, Mrs. Gertrude Whaley

Editor's note: These two poems were written on Christmas Eve by Amtrak passengers who were delayed between Chicago and Portland a total of 23 hours due to subzero temperatures and the snow. The "Frank" mentioned in the poems is Frank M. Demaria of Chicago whose Christmas journey was his first trip as an Amtrak employee.

Poem #1: Christmas 1983, on Amtrak

Twas the Night Before Christmas, and all through the train, not a toilet was working and it was too cold to rain.

Mom in her snug sack, and I in my seat, had just settled down to the clickety beat, when up front of the car, there arose such a clatter, I sprang from my seat to see what was the matter.

And to the aisle I flew like a flash, tripping over suitcases and all kinds of trash. The moon on the crest of the train gave a reassurance we were still on our way.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear, but the slowing of the train, and a word of Good Cheer from an attendant, so dapper and swank. I knew in a moment it must be Saint Frank.

More slowly than turtles the engines they came, so he apologized and called them by name. Now Rugby, now Browning, now Whitefish, and Glendive, on Portage, on Redwing, on Fargo and Minot (and Havre, too). To the top of the mountain, to the top of the pass, now dash away, dash away, we hope we have gas.

As dry snow, before the blizzard hits, we had our suspicions this trip was the pits. As I pulled out my hankie and started to weep, down the aisle, Frank came.

He was starting to sweep; he changed all the pillows and emptied the trash. And giving a smile, he went off to crash.

Three hours later, he sprang to his feet and made sure everyone had something to eat. Then taking his clip board into his hand, he went off to help passengers throughout the Land.

And I heard him explain, with his voice full of cheer, "Merry Christmas to all, see you all again this time next year."

Poem #2: Twas the Night before Christmas 1983, on Amtrak.

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the land, Amtrak was creeping much slower than planned. The temperature plummeted to 47 below, and fear of brittle rails, kept us going slow.

When what to our wondering ears should be told, that due to unusual wintery cold, passengers eagerly Portland, Oregon bound, were to travel instead up to Seattle Sound.

The children were running about in the aisle and parents bravely were trying to smile, but weary Amtrak officials, rose to the occasion and fed us a complimentary Christmas Eve Celebration.

While visions of Sugar Plums danced in each head, they gave all they had: Cheeseburgers, Calzones, instead.

But never was so welcome a Christmas Eve Feast, for bedraggled passengers, come from the east.

When children were nestled all snug in their seats, Amtrak Santa delighted them with candy cane treats.

Parents and grandparents reached out and smiled, with a friendly spirit of the Christmas Eve Child.

Many thanks to Chief Riley, Frank and all Amtrak crew, for smilingly, helpfully, bringing us through.

Despite low temps, derailments, broken rails on the way, their competent care of us helped save the day.

And when in years to come, this eve we recall, it will be one of the most memorable Christmases of all.

"And she brought forth her firstborn so and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn." Luke 2:7


Ila McClenahan is a retired chaplain and activity director living in the Amos area north of Havre. She spends her time writing, speaking at various events and trying to be a good grandmother, mother and wife.


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