For Deborah Rivers and her family, walking into the hushed Capitol Rotunda and filing past the flag-draped coffin of a former president was a humbling experience.

"I was just amazed at how somber and quiet it was," said Rivers, 45, of Jenkinsburg, Ga., who was among the first in line for the public viewing with her husband and two teenage daughters. "It was something I will never forget."

From far away and close by, thousands of people lined the procession route and crowded outside the Capitol yesterday for a chance to view a moment in history and bid farewell to Ronald Reagan, a man whom some revered, some felt ambivalent about, but most agreed was a giant figure in American politics. The crowds were largely white, ranging in age from babies to the elderly, dressed in everything from funeral attire to T-shirts and shorts. In the warm nighttime air, underneath the glowing dome of the Capitol, they waited, determined not to miss this rare occasion.

"When we saw it on the news, that he had passed away, I don't know, I just had a tugging on my heart," said Herb Hobgood, a 58-year-old machinery company owner from Winnsboro, S.C., who made the 10-hour drive with his wife, Gloria, and mother, Doris, 83. "I told my wife, we've got to go up there and participate in this thing because he was such a great man."

More than 100,000 people had paid their respects to the former president in California, viewing the coffin at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, and at least that many more were expected to do the same in the Capitol.

At 9 p.m., when the public began funneling through the Rotunda to view the coffin, the line laced from the Capitol's south entrance nearly to Third Street SW. More people were joining the line as time passed -- a sometimes noisy crowd illuminated by giant lights -- and authorities expect a steady procession through the day and night to come.

Many emerged from the viewing in tears, clutching the commemorative card -- white with a gold seal and black lettering -- that was handed to each person. It said, in part, "The Final Tribute from a Grateful Nation."

Carolyn Gay, who worked in the East Wing of the White House during Reagan's second administration, dabbed a tear from her eye as she walked down the west front steps of the Capitol.

"It just seems so fitting that a man of the people was lying in state," she said. "You sort of just wanted to stay a little longer."

For many spectators, witnessing history required traveling a distance.

When Steve Kruse of Ogden, Iowa, learned last weekend that the former president had died, his wife, Shelley, surprised him with a $300 round-trip ticket to Washington so Kruse could be "a part of history," he said.

Kruse, 40, wore his "I Miss Ronald Reagan" T-shirt covered with campaign buttons as he waited his turn to view the casket. He also showed off photographs of his first child, a 6-month-old daughter named Reagan.

"I'm representing 17 of us in our family," said Kruse, who is active in Republican politics back home. "I just felt he was such a great guy -- this was the least I could do for him."

Glen and Mary Castillo of Tulsa looked at each other Monday afternoon while viewing the funeral coverage on television and decided they had to make the 1,200-mile drive to Washington with their three children. After two days of traveling and overnight stays in St. Louis and West Virginia, they arrived at the Capitol yesterday afternoon, in plenty of time for the viewing.

"We're here today to honor a great patriot and a great American," said Glen Castillo, 37, who works for a pharmaceutical company. "We would only do this for somebody special, like Reagan."

The Castillos both served as Marines during the Reagan administration and met each other while in the military. They wanted their children -- twins Glen Jr. and Lauren, 10, and Anna Lynn, 14 -- to see the reverent spectacle of the horse-drawn caisson.

Outside the Capitol and along the procession route, even some who were not fans of the Reagan presidency felt compelled to observe part of the historic event.

In Southeast Washington, where Reagan's presidency was unpopular, about 150 people lined a quarter-mile stretch of Suitland Parkway near Martin Luther King Boulevard to watch the motorcade pass. The crowd there, all black and mostly children, waved as the flag-draped coffin went by. On a small bluff overlooking the motorway, Vanessa Tucker brought a dozen children from the day-care center of the adjacent Matthews Memorial Baptist Church to "witness a moment of history," and Walter Plush, who once served in the Air Force, videotaped the event.

"I might not agree with all of his policies, but I respect the office of the presidency," Plush said. "I was in the military and feel a respect for a former commander in chief."

Farther down the hill, Justice Department employee Birdie Harris turned out to watch the motorcade after work.

"He didn't do a lot for us, but it heals over time," she said. "You go on."

On Constitution Avenue, where the caisson carrying Reagan's coffin was due to pass on its way to the Capitol, spectators began gathering as early as 1 p.m., taking the shady spots first. Adults set up camp chairs, small American flags and giant sun umbrellas as children who were not born when Reagan left office sprawled on blankets and played video games.

"I thought the world of Ronald Reagan. I think the world of Nancy," said Arlene Black, 67, of Reston, who came with her daughter Susan Armstrong of Stafford and Armstrong's three children. "Bottom line, I'm American -- to the core of my being."

Black realized that her grandchildren, ages 9, 7, and 3, "won't remember much about this," she said, "but we'll talk to them about it someday."

Derace Owens, 60, who flew into Washington early yesterday from Jacksonville, Tex., was one of the first in line at the Capitol. Dressed in a linen suit and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat to shade his face from the sun, Owens said he decided to come the moment he learned of the president's death. A cross-country trip to a city where he has no family or friends was no deterrent, he said.

"Reagan never put himself first," he said, tearing up as he spoke. Today, he added, "the least we can do is . . . put him first."

Other spectators, such as Craig Byram, 35, of Austin, Minn., were already in town sightseeing. He secured a spot to watch the procession between Ninth and 10th streets on Constitution Avenue.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Byram said.

He said he learned his view of the world from watching Reagan in office.

"Modern-day politics is missing the language of hope and positivism," he said. "I wish candidates from both parties would have his speechwriters."

Ruth and Steve Lech, Oklahoma natives who call themselves "full-time RVers," already were in the Washington area in their 37-foot motor home. Big supporters of Reagan, they did not think twice about plunging into the crowds gathering at the Capitol.

"I think he made us all proud of our country again," Ruth Lech said. "We were kind of down there for a while."

Not everyone was caught up in the moment, however.

Vickie Morse of Manassas, 58, began camping out outside the Capitol at 11 a.m. with two granddaughters in tow and plenty of granola bars, liquids and books. The 10-hour wait was made bearable by chats with others in line.

"This has been a great way to meet wonderful humanity," said Morse, a homemaker. "That's the way Reagan was."

But a few feet away in the shade of a tree, Morse's granddaughters, Kaely, 11, and Keely Clapper, 14, played their fourth round of the card game "speed" and pondered the president they had learned about on an A&E television movie.

"We don't really know who this man is, except that he was a great speaker," Keely said. "Our grandmother dragged us here."