Franklin D. Roosevelt laying the cornerstone of his presidential library, Nov. 19, 1939. Photograph courtesy Hagley Museum and Library

The Daunting Logistics Behind FDR's Simple Funeral

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By Christopher T. Baer

On April 12, 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered a fatal stroke at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he had gone to recuperate from his grueling trip to the Big Three conference at Yalta.

FDR had left instructions for a relatively simple funeral with interment in the garden of his home in Hyde Park, New York. Nevertheless, the railroad companies had to work closely with the White House to organize, on short notice, the final journey home of a revered president.

Documents in the Hagley Museum and Library’s Pennsylvania Railroad archive show the extraordinary planning and precautions needed to move Roosevelt in a somber, yet efficient, way.

The Pennsylvania Railroad took particular care with its portion of the trip from Washington to Hyde Park following the White House funeral service. It was a testament to America’s sense of security at the time that almost its entire top level of government was brought together in the confined space of 30 moving railroad cars organized into two trains, something unimaginable today.

One train included the armored presidential car "Ferdinand Magellan," for the Roosevelt family; the "Conneaut," which contained the bier and honor guard; the "Roald Amundsen" for President Harry S. Truman and his suite; sleeping cars for the entire Cabinet and Supreme Court; two dining cars; and the president's radio-communications car.

A second train carried members of Congress and two baggage cars to hold the floral tributes. The congressional train was set to run ahead to Hyde Park station, so that the mourners could be graveside as the cortege climbed the hill from the funeral train, which would park on the riverside directly below the estate.

The two trains left Washington Union Station at 10:15 p.m. and 11:03 p.m. on April 14 on their overnight journey up what is now the Amtrak main line between Washington and Boston. All along the line, the railroad placed every station agent on duty, posted extra locomotives at strategic points in case of breakdown, detoured or slowed passenger trains, and halted all freight trains. They also closely coordinated with the military and police to place security details and honor guards at stations and bridges.

Although the funeral train departed Washington more than half an hour late, both trains got into New York’s Penn Station ahead of schedule at about 4:30 a.m. At Mott Haven Yard in the Bronx, the electric locomotives were exchanged for steam and the trains headed for Hyde Park. The simple Episcopal service was over before 11 a.m., and the two trains, with their remaining occupants, had returned to Washington by 8:30 p.m.

The Roosevelt funeral train proved to be the last such overland mourning ritual for a sitting president, ending a tradition begun for William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor a century earlier.

When Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated while seeking the 1968 presidential nomination, his New York-Washington funeral train drew the same emotional crowds, but was a much different affair. Non-stop television coverage revealed the growing decrepitude of the now-bankrupt Penn Central Railroad on a sad day made longer and sadder by sticking brakes, failed air conditioning and spectator fatalities. It seemed of a piece with a year marked by assassinations, animosities, protests and riots.

In contrast, the old Pennsylvania Railroad conveyed FDR to his last resting place with the same efficiency and sense of purpose that animated the entire national war effort.

(Christopher T. Baer is assistant curator of Manuscripts & Archives at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware.)

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-0- Apr/12/2012 16:55 GMT