The history of America’s railroads and its Commander-in-Chief is long and entwined. Each has supported and at times hindered the other throughout the history of the Republic. Even before the technology of railroads evolved, Presidents recognized the need for a national transportation network of their caliber to facilitate national commerce, communications and defense. It would be the rails that transformed us from these united states to the United States.
Carrying the POTUS
Since Andrew Jackson took the first trip of a sitting President by rail in 1833, railroads have been an important means of travel for the Chief Executive. Even in today’s Airforce One world, the rails continue to represent an opportunity to combine travel with meeting the public.
The POTUS generally made use of whatever equipment a railroad or the Pullman Company would provide for travel. Railroad business cars and private cars of the wealthy were commonly employed. In 1943, a Pullman was specifically allocated for use by the President. The Ferdinand Magellan had been built in 1925 and upon selection by the Secret Service was rebuilt for use by Franklin Roosevelt. The car was modified with armored sides, bullet proof glass and even a chair lift for Roosevelt. The modifications made it the heaviest passenger car ever to operate in the US – 285,000 pounds.
The last official use of the Magellan was by Mamie Eisenhower in 1958. It is preserved today at the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami, FL. Since then, Presidents have returned to private cars for occasional travel and campaign use. Most commonly and recently, Georgia 300 – a former Crescent observation and business car of the Georgia Railroad, has been the car of choice.
The Politics of the Rails
There has been a love / hate relationship between railroads and the President, indeed with the Federal Government, since the 1830s. Railroads challenged all established rules of interstate commerce upon their spread. Their growth has therefore been both promoted and restrained by the ruling politics of the day.
President Lincoln saw the railroads as a way to literally bind the country together. Amidst the burdens of war, he pressed for the construction of the first Transcontinental Railroad. As those railroads grew in scope and power beyond what anyone could have imagined, Presidents throughout the latter 19th and 20th Centuries would seek to reign in the iron horse. Some Presidents, like Harry Truman, wore their love of trains on their sleeves. Some, like Woodrow Wilson brought the railroads under government control in the name of efficiency and security. While more conservative leaders like Ronald Reagan did everything they could to get railroads off of the Federal payroll.
Railroads have been at the forefront of legislation for nearly two centuries. Although they are no longer the biggest of big business, the political climate can still often be gauged in funding for high-speed rail, commuter agencies and Amtrak.
Railroads have also born the sad tradition of being the bearers of a President’s last ride home. Lincoln’s funeral train is undoubtedly the most famous and heralded. His was far from unique however. The Presidential Funeral Train was a common practice for much of the 19th and 20th Centuries. The last was given for President Eisenhower who requested that his casket be carried in the baggage car as had been commonly done for fallen soldiers during the war.
The railroad even served as the backdrop for the assassination of one President. James Garfield was shot in the station of the Baltimore and Potomac RR. Garfield’s recovery at the White House was hampered by the heat, humidity and mosquitos. He was taken by special train to a cottage in New Jersey. Special tracks were laid to the home and according to his Chief Physician Dr. D. W. Bliss, “On arriving at the track recently laid to the Francklyn Cottage, we were surrounded by a large concourse of people, who braved the heat of the day in the anxiety lest the journey might have resulted disastrously. The engine had not weight and power sufficient to push us up the steep grade. Instantly hundreds of strong arms caught the cars, and silently, but resistlessly, rolled the three heavy coaches up to the level.” Garfield died 13 days later, more likely from infections than from the bullet itself.