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George H.W. Bush’s final ride: A train that connects him to a long presidential tradition

Mourners gathered along the train tracks Dec. 6 as the funeral train carrying the body of former president George H.W. Bush journeyed to College Station, Tex. (Video: Reuters)

As a child, George H.W. Bush rode the rails with his family, sleeping in train cars as they traveled.

Those memories returned to him fondly in 2005, when the former president served as engineer, briefly, aboard Bush 4141 — a rare Union Pacific locomotive commissioned in his honor. Painted to resemble Air Force One, the locomotive bore a presidential seal and Bush’s name.

“If I had one of these when I was president,” Bush said at the 2005 unveiling, “I might have left Air Force One behind.”

This week, the 41st president did just that. Bush, who died Nov. 30 at the age of 94, was carried from Washington to Texas aboard Air Force One for the final leg of his funeral ceremonies. But on Thursday afternoon, the plane was abandoned in favor of simpler, slower accommodations: Bush 4141.

The personalized locomotive departed from the Union Pacific Railroad Westfield Auto Facility for its 70-mile journey to College Station, where Bush will be buried at his presidential library.

Along the way, mourners lined the tracks and bid farewell — a somber tradition for U.S. presidents that began with President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral but fell dormant in recent decades. Memorial arrangements for the past five presidential funerals have not included riding the rails. Bush’s funeral train procession is the first since 1969, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower was taken by railroad from Washington to his burial place in Kansas.

“It’s more personal with a funeral train,” said presidential historian Louis Picone. “It definitely goes back to a different time.”

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For the earliest executive funerals, the choice to travel by train was more necessity than nostalgia. President John Quincy Adams was the first to have a funeral train procession, though it wasn’t elaborate or coordinated, said Picone, who wrote the book “The President Is Dead!: The Extraordinary Stories of the Presidential Deaths, Final Days, Burials, and Beyond.” Organically, mourners waited along the route to Massachusetts.

But it wasn’t until Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 that the practice gained pomp — and widespread attention.

A blue Union Pacific locomotive named after George H.W. Bush will carry the 41st president to his final resting place in College Station, Tex., on Dec. 6. (Video: Reuters)

After he had lay in state in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, Lincoln’s body was loaded onto a nine-car funeral train carrying 300 people and readied for the 1,700-mile trek home to the Midwest. The procession moved through 180 cities and followed the same path Lincoln traveled four years earlier in 1861 on the way to his inauguration in Washington. Newspapers published scheduled stops, and the president’s body was removed for ceremonies in 10 cities.

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Dubbed “The Lincoln Special,” the funeral train was not initially intended for such a somber trek. White House staff believed Lincoln needed a railroad car befitting the president, like a 19th-century Air Force One. It was outfitted with a seal of the United States and elegant woodwork. But Lincoln thought it was “too opulent,” said Matthew Costello, senior historian with the White House Historical Association.

“He didn’t think it reflected himself or how Americans saw him,” Costello said. So Lincoln never rode in it — not until his final journey home.

The elaborate, extensive funeral procession set the standard for late 19th- and early 20th-century presidential farewells. By Picone’s count, 10 presidents before Bush had funeral trains, some more memorable than others. Among them were Ulysses S. Grant, Chester A. Arthur, William McKinley and Andrew Johnson.

When President Warren G. Harding died suddenly in San Francisco during a tour of the West, his body was transported on a cross-country train to Washington, the longest presidential train processional in history, Picone said.

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So he wouldn’t be disturbed while recovering from a gunshot wound, President James A. Garfield rode in a train car outfitted like a hospital room to his coastal cottage in New Jersey. The Navy Corps of Engineers designed a water-filled rubber mattress for comfort, reported Smithsonian magazine, and the windows were draped to keep out soot. When they passed through a Philadelphia train yard, hundreds of people laid down their tools so they wouldn’t disturb the president, Picone said.

But the train station was about a mile from the cottage, so railroad workers built a track extension up to the door. When it stopped at an incline, townspeople sprang into action again.

“It almost seems like a scene from a movie, but the train had puttered out about 100 feet from the house,” Picone said. “People walked up to the train and physically pushed it up to the cottage.”

Just two weeks later, though, Garfield died, so the same train carried him back to Washington.

And when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — the longest serving U.S. president — died in Georgia in 1945, his remains traveled on the Ferdinand Magellan to Washington. For the second leg of the trip, to Hyde Park, N.Y., where Roosevelt was buried, the processional held two trains. One, with 18 cars, carried Roosevelt and all nine Supreme Court justices. A second train with 11 cars carried members of Congress.

On their way out of town, a coupler on one train broke, Picone writes in his book. On board, a reporter named William Murphy remarked: “The Republicans have always known it would be difficult to get FDR out of Washington.”

In recent history, planes have overtaken the role trains once served. But for those of Bush’s era, Costello said, the sobriety of the railroads holds greater significance.

“The train was the way to bring them closure,” he said. “It gave ordinary people that opportunity [to say goodbye], ordinary Americans who couldn’t drop everything to come to Washington for a week. It’s so much more personal, beyond a photograph, beyond just reading a newspaper.”

Read more:

Unlike George W. Bush, John Quincy Adams didn’t make it to his father’s funeral

George H.W. Bush got to hear his own eulogy before he died. His reaction was priceless.

How Barbara fell in love with George H.W. Bush, ‘the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on’

Bob Dole rises from wheelchair to give George H.W. Bush a final salute

From Lincoln to Bush: Lying in state at the U.S. Capitol