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Snowbound on Trains

By Forrest Whitman

The usual gossip in the lounge car on the westbound California Zephyr (#5) moved to the topic of snow. It seemed most everyone had been snowbound or at least delayed by snow. I was in the mood for a good, long trip to share the holidays with my family from Thailand in the San Juan Islands near Seattle. I’d had a good bus trip to Union Station, a great breakfast and we were out, right on time, at 8:05 a.m.

News about our connection got a bit grim. A big Pacific storm had hit the northwest. We’d make our connection with the Coast Starlight (#14) at 11:59 p.m. in Sacramento, but going north looked dicey. No one worried that we’d become snowbound on Donner Pass and turn to cannibalism. We joked about that.

Up into the Cascades we crept. At least six feet of snow piled along the tracks. It was still snowing hard when we stopped dead. The young woman conductor confirmed my old railroad guy suspicions. We needed a plow and flanger to get up that three percent grade. The woman across from me in the dining car kept her two kids entertained with their tablets. She was a veteran of the trip and had entertainment in hand.

As rosy-fingered dawn broke, we stopped to see a fantastic view. Snow swirled along the lower levels of the train, but from the diner you could see forever. All was crispy white and perfect. The jerk as the plow attached was welcome! In the end, we got into Seattle at about four in the morning instead of nine at night. “You train folks,” said my Uber driver, “you just keep smiling no matter what.”

I do have one fairly lucky train story. This was to be a short trip; Trinidad to Winslow, Arizona. We should have been warned when we learned I-25 was closed over Raton Pass.

We enjoyed Trinidad as planned (great pizza and movies there), but learned the snow had closed down Raton Pass again. No problem. We boarded on time in the morning and made Winslow on time. The Southwest Chief (#3) came through.

We had a lovely experience there at La Posada hotel. It included the Indian parade and a lot of sitting by the fireplace. Coming back, we learned I-25 was closed yet again. No problem. The good old Southwest Chief (#4) nosed up that grade to Raton Pass. Only three hours late, we arrived in Trinidad to learn that I-25 was closed by, yup, snow. We got the last motel room in Trinidad and arrived home just a day late. Glad we took the train.

My most heroic train story concerns the great Chicago blizzard. I was working on the New York Central at 63rd and State on the south side. Walking down the middle of 63rd Street with my lantern and lunch box was a surreal experience. Nothing moved. It was all white. The roofs of stranded Chicago cop cars barely peeked out.

As I marked up, I was one of only six men on the show board; all very local guys. Our crew was assigned a “priority switcher” fitted out with a plow. Nothing else moved. All the way to Indiana we dug out switches and ignored the snow-filled signals. We were the only thing moving! We got to our first of three towers, and a rope was lowered (no kidding) so we could attach a box of food. No way to climb up there. The snow was now boxcar high so we struggled our way back to the yards. It was another day before plows reached those towers. At least the tower men didn’t starve.

My favorite snowbound story concerned a Thanksgiving trip my son and I took on the California Zephyr (#6) to Chicago from Denver. He was about ten and loved our train trips. We knew there was a blizzard happening on the plains, but thought all would be well. In the early morning hours, my son informed me that we’d been stopped dead a long time. All we could see from our bunks was white, and the wind kept rocking the superliner.

When we reached the dining car, we were informed the train was stuck somewhere in Nebraska. Breakfast was free of course (still is). I ordered a Bloody Mary only to learn that “all I can give you is tomato juice.” With a wink, that somewhat elderly, African American waiter handed me the best bloody I can remember.

After a happy time reading “Tin Tin” in our bunks, we felt that welcome jolt and waited for the air test to happen. It wasn’t quite like the Agatha Christie novel, but close. We did make it for Thanksgiving, and as we pulled in, the oil burners were lit under each switch in the swirling snow. That, plus the red and green pot signals made for a lovely holiday scene. My sister never kissed me, but she did that time.