NAVASOTA, Texas — They stood in the rain for hours, waiting. Ranchers, retirees and Cub Scouts clutching tiny flags in the cold , waiting to see the train carrying the casket of President George H.W. Bush through the center of town.
After the pomp and circumstance of Bush’s memorial service at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston on Thursday, his casket was transferred to a windowed car in a train powered by a Union Pacific locomotive long ago painted “4141” in his honor. The train made a 70-mile journey to College Station, where Bush would be laid to rest at his presidential library, through the wintry farmland of the state Bush had grown to love.
As president, Bush had vowed to bring his message of hope and growth “to the loneliest town on the quietest street.” Now his train was passing through tiny Texas towns with only a few dozen residents.
“Is it coming?” everybody kept asking, peering down the tracks, where the residents of Navasota — population 8,000 — were lined up for blocks under their umbrellas.
Few among them remembered the last time a president’s casket had traveled by funeral train — that was 1969, with Eisenhower — but all were aware they were witnessing history.
“We’re losing the last of the Greatest Generation,” said Shane Werchan, 46, a salesman. “It really is the end of an era. We will never see a president like him again.”
The Bush train was perhaps the most exciting thing that had ever happened in Navasota, a tiny town built around the railroad and cotton farms in 1854. It’s not far from the symbolic heart of the state, Washington-on-the-Brazos, where Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836. Navasota’s picturesque downtown includes a hardware store selling red Radio Flyer wagons, a coffee shop owned by the mayor, antique stores and a weekly newspaper’s office.
On Thursday, Mary Fontaine, 76, a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam with the WAVES — or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service — was handing out flags at the corner of Railroad Street and Washington Avenue, where locals said the cotton bales were stacked high during the town’s heyday. This week, the buildings were hung with red, white and blue bunting and a sign that read “President George H.W. Bush. Thank You For A Lifetime Of Service.”
With every flag, Fontaine cheerily asked the recipient to “pray for our country.”
“We need it now more than ever ’cause we’re very divided,” Fontaine said. “This has brought the patriotism out in all of us, and we need to embrace it and stand tall.”
Bush, who died Friday at the age of 94, was born in Massachusetts to a family of wealth. He was praised in eulogies for his patrician grace and sense of duty and service, which included a career in politics that began in 1966 when he was elected to the House of Representatives and continued as envoy to the United Nations and China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and vice president.
But his heart remained with his adopted home state of Texas, where he and his wife, Barbara, moved in 1948 so he could try his hand at the oil industry. The couple returned to Houston to live after he was defeated for a second term as president in 1992.
Corine Licht, 71, a retired Walmart cashier, recalled Thursday that when her home was damaged during a gas explosion, Bush, then a Republican congressman, “was the only person that came out to help us.”
“He was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and khaki pants, no suit, and he walked all over the neighborhood, shook our hands, and asked everybody if they needed anything,” Licht recalled. “I have always remembered that.”
Bush had been delighted when Union Pacific unveiled the locomotive in his honor in 2005, painted blue and white, the colors of Air Force One, and dubbed “4141,” a nod to his place in history as the 41st president.
At the time, Bush said it reminded him of train travels with his family as a young boy, and he even took a turn behind the controls.
“We just rode on railroads all the time and I’ve never forgotten it,” Bush said then.
He responded with similar enthusiasm when staff at his presidential library on the campus of Texas A&M University raised the idea of using the locomotive as part of the funeral proceedings, said David Jones, chief executive of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation. The library had used the locomotive for earlier events.
Somber funeral train processions have long been a part of American history, beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train in 1865, which made a journey of 1,600 miles.
Earlier this week, Bush’s spokesman, Jim McGrath, said in a tweet that the former president had reacted with “typical humility” when briefed about the plans for his funeral in 2011, asking, “Do you think anyone will come?”
And, Thursday, they did come. In Navasota, onlookers gathered from all around. They included schoolchildren who had been let out early for the “lifetime opportunity,” as the local schools superintendent wrote in a note sent to parents.
Among them was James Scoggin, 81, from Katy, a retired Navy lieutenant commander who, like Bush, survived bailing out of his plane under fire during combat.
“I just came to say thank you,” Scoggin said. “I think he was the best president we ever had.”
Scoggin brushed off his own near-death experience in Vietnam, when he was quickly rescued by a helicopter and was only doing what he had been trained for.
“It was no big deal,” he said.
Finally, in the distance, the train horns began to wail. Helicopters and a drone circled overhead. Soggy flags, both American and Texan, were unfurled and locals rushed to the tracks.
“U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” they chanted.
Then the train emerged — first the blue-and-white locomotive, then a string of antique train cars, then a quick glimpse of the casket in a train car emblazoned with an American flag. A cheer grew louder when the crowd spotted former president George W. Bush peeking out the window in the car behind his father’s casket, smiling and waving.
Then — whoosh! — the train passed, on to the burial, the final ceremony of the week’s events.
Afterward, local resident Donna Orozco, 57, an accountant, grew emotional when she spoke about the day’s events.
“I feel humbled,” she said, tearing up. “This is probably something we will never see again.”