A Brief History of Presidential Funeral Trains

Funeral Train of President Abraham Lincoln
Funeral Train of President Abraham Lincoln
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

The body of President George H. W. Bush will be transported by train along a 70-mile route to College Station, Texas, where it will be taken to its final resting place at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Texas A&M University. The train—Union Pacific 4141, named for the 41st president—is painted robin's egg blue (just like Air Force One) and will tow a special transparent viewing car, allowing the public one last chance to pay their respects to the former head of state.

It's the first time a president's body has been moved by funeral train in almost 50 years.

Funeral trains, however, used to be something of a tradition for departed politicians: Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, Warren G. Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower were all transported to their final resting places by a ceremonial train. (As were other government figures, including Robert F. Kennedy, Douglas MacArthur, and Frank Lautenberg.)

Lincoln's funeral train, the first, was arguably the most memorable. Traveling 1654 miles from Washington D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, the train chugged at a steady speed of 20 mph and stopped at 180 cities over the course of 13 days. The steam engine featured a portrait of Lincoln at the front and carried nine cars covered in elaborate mourning bunting. According to Olivia B. Waxman at TIME, "When it was in transit, a train traveling 30 minutes ahead of the Lincoln Special sounded a bell to alert those in the area that the funeral train was approaching. Those who could only see it at night camped out at bonfires along the route." Millions of people turned out to show their respects.

The next presidential funeral train was for another head of state who sadly also succumbed to gunshot wounds—James A. Garfield. According to the James A. Garfield National Historic Site blog:

"All along the route mourners stood at trackside, heads bowed as the train went by and church bells tolled. Bridges and buildings were draped in black. At Princeton, New Jersey, students scattered flowers on the track and then retrieved the crushed petals after the train had passed to keep for souvenirs. The train was met in Washington by the Chief Justice, Garfield's entire cabinet, and Presidents Grant and Arthur."

In many cases, the funeral trains traveled through places beloved by the presidents. Ulysses S. Grant's train was saluted as it passed through West Point. McKinley's train made haste to reach his beloved home in Canton, Ohio. (Many onlookers, not content to just bring flowers, made mementos by placing coins on the tracks and watched as the train flattened them.)

Meanwhile, FDR's funeral train—which embarked on a nine-state, three-day ride—carried much more than the president's remains: It also carried some of the most important people in government, including Roosevelt's family, the vice president and his family, every Supreme Court Justice, and most of the administrative cabinet. According to the MacMillan synopsis of Robert Kara's book FDR's Funeral Train, "Many who would recall the journey later would agree it was a foolhardy idea to start with—putting every important elected figure in Washington on a single train during the biggest war in history."

In some cases, the deceased had a special connection to the train itself. Eisenhower's body was transported in a car named "The Old Santa Fe." It was a familiar place: Ike had ridden the same car when he made his first campaign speech in 1952. Similarly, Bush—a train lover—had been acquainted with his funeral train for more than a decade, having given the 4300-horsepower locomotive his seal of approval back in 2005. At the time, he even gave the train a two-mile test drive and called it, "The Air Force One of railroads."

George H.W. Bush's Service Dog, Sully, Will Fly to D.C. With the Former President's Casket

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Former president George H.W. Bush died Friday, November 30, leaving behind five children, 17 grandchildren, and one loyal service dog. Sully H.W. Bush, the yellow lab who served as Bush's companion for the last several months of his life, will accompany his late owner's casket to Washington D.C., CNN reports.

George H.W. Bush brought Sully (named after the pilot who famously landed a damaged plane on the Hudson River) into his home following the death of his wife Barbara in April. Trained by America's VetDogs, a charity that connects service dogs to veterans with disabilities, Sully can respond to a list of commands, including answering the phone. On Sunday, December 2, George H.W. Bush spokesman Jim McGrath shared a photo on Twitter of the dog lying in front of the president's casket with the caption "Mission Complete."

In addition to serving as the 41st president from 1989 to 1993, George H.W. Bush was a World War II veteran, businessman, and congressman. He passed away at his home at age 94, following struggles with numerous health conditions, including a type of Parkinson's disease.

Sully will be accompanying his owner's casket when it makes its way to Washington, D.C., where the former president will lie in state under the Capitol Rotunda before he's brought to his final resting place at his presidential library in College Station, Texas. The service dog's next job will be helping military veterans in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.

[h/t CNN]

The Highly Unusual Funeral of Lee Harvey Oswald

STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

The director of the Miller Funeral Home was a man named Paul Groody. He told the grave diggers that the piles of dirt they were moving were in service of a deceased man named William Bobo. Bobo, an old cowboy in the Fort Worth area, occupied one of the tables inside the funeral parlor, old age and sun-drenched living having caught up to him at the age of 75.

That’s right, Paul Groody told them. That hole is for Bobo.

When Groody called and arranged for flowers, he told the florist to put “Bobo” on the tag.

When Groody picked out a brown suit for the service, the reporters who were milling around the funeral home asked him who it was for. “Mr. Bobo,” Groody told them.

Groody was lying. The suit wasn’t for Bobo. Neither were the flowers, nor the grave, nor the eight policemen and two guard dogs stationed at the property, some of whom had accompanied Groody when he visited Parkland Memorial Hospital on November 24 to claim the most infamous corpse in the country.

All of these arrangements were in the service of burying Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of assassinating John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, who was himself murdered on November 24, and would be laid to rest on November 25. It would be a most unusual send-off. 


Getty Images

Perched at the window of the Texas School Book Depository, alleged communist Oswald reportedly took aim at a motorcade traveling through Dallas, fired three shots, and pierced the skull of Kennedy. He was captured, jailed, then shot by nightclub owner Jack Ruby while in transit to another facility. At Parkland Memorial Hospital—the same site where Kennedy was rushed in an attempt to save his life—Oswald was pronounced dead 105 minutes after being shot.

Never had a dead body been such a source of consternation and concern among the Secret Service, the FBI, and local officials. Oswald had obviously been a target while he was still breathing; dead, the authorities were concerned that he might attract people looking to desecrate his corpse.

Quietly, law enforcement phoned Groody, who operated a funeral home in Fort Worth. He collected Oswald's body in the middle of the night on November 24 and made plans for a service the following day, when Oswald’s mother, widow, brother, and two children would be able to attend. But there were some problems.

Problem one was the issue of finding someone to lead the service. No one, not even clergy members, could seem to put aside their anger long enough to say even a few parting words about a man who sent the country into mourning. Two Lutheran ministers agreed, then backed out when Groody told them the service would be held outdoors. (Both feared sniper fire would disrupt the proceedings.)

When Oswald’s family showed up for the 4 p.m. service, Groody encountered another issue. Aside from law enforcement, no one other than Oswald's widow and mother had showed up for the funeral—there were no friends and no other family members to serve as pallbearers. So Groody turned to the one thing he did have in plentiful supply: members of the press. Acting on a tip, dozens of reporters had gathered on the grounds to photograph and witness the burial of Kennedy’s assassin.

Groody approached Preston McGraw, a local reporter with whom he had some previous dealings. McGraw agreed to help carry the casket. Michael Cochran, the Associated Press’s Fort Worth correspondent, saw McGraw assisting and felt compelled to join him (after initially refusing to help). Another reporter, Jack Moseley, hung on to the casket’s handle for a few steps before walking away; he couldn’t stand carrying Oswald, even if it was to his grave.

Eventually, at least seven reporters labored to move him. Then, with Oswald in the ground, the Reverend Louis Saunders—executive secretary of the local Council of Churches and the only man willing to lend the service a religious overture—uttered some spare words.

“Mrs. Oswald tells me that her son, Lee Harvey, was a good boy and that she loved him,” he said. “And today, Lord, we commit his spirit to your Divine care.”

That was all. Oswald’s casket was opened one last time so that the family could pay their last respects. It was then lowered into the grave.

It wouldn’t remain there.


Getty Images

The morbid fascination with Oswald so feared by authorities turned out to be warranted. On the fourth anniversary of Kennedy’s murder, in 1967, thieves stole Oswald's modest headstone in Rose Hill Cemetery. When it was recovered, Oswald’s mother, Marguerite, replaced it with a simple plaque and kept the original in her home.

When Marguerite died in 1981, she was buried in the plot next to her son. That same year, Oswald’s body was exhumed in order to satisfy conspiracy theories regarding whether he really occupied the grave or whether a body double had been used instead. After the curious parties were satisfied, Oswald was buried once more.

Because his pine bluff casket had been damaged by water, the Miller Funeral Home—now known as the Baumgardner Funeral Home—told Oswald’s brother, Robert, that they’d be putting him in a new coffin. Robert agreed, assuming the old one would be destroyed.


Charley Gallay, Getty Images

It wasn’t. Unbeknownst to Robert, the funeral home put the casket up for auction in 2010. In 2015, a judge ruled that the business owed Robert $87,468 in damages and needed to return the casket to the family.

No one ever appeared eager to let Lee Harvey Oswald rest in peace, save for the journalists who put him there. When Cochran stood deliberating whether to assist Groody in 1963, a reporter named Jerry Flemmons turned to him and said, “Cochran, if we're gonna write a story about the burial of Lee Harvey Oswald, we're gonna have to bury the son of a bitch ourselves."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER