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."

Presidents Day vs. President's Day vs. Presidents' Day: Which One Is It?

iStock
iStock

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" implies that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

How to See a Dozen Presidential Homes in One Road Trip for Less Than $220

George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate
George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate
Drew Angerer, Getty Images

Do you have a passion for travel, American history, and presidential trivia? If so, you may want to start packing your bags now. Wanderu has mapped out three separate road trips that show history buffs how they can visit more than 20 presidential homes and estates across the country, should they choose to combine all three excursions into one mega-trip.

The travel platform has already done the research and legwork, identifying the buses and trains that connect each city on the itinerary, as well as the cost of each. Fortunately, these trips are friendly on the wallet. Transportation would cost about $218 for the East Coast trip, which has the most jam-packed itinerary of the three. The California trip would cost about $93 (unless you choose to drive, which is doable), and a third itinerary that covers the Midwest—it starts in Ohio, dips into Kentucky, and then ends in Iowa—would set you back some $200.

Some of the presidential pads on the list—like George Washington's Mount Vernon home and Ulysses S. Grant's Illinois home—can be toured. Others are private, and thus best admired from a distance. Check out the itineraries below, and visit Wanderu's website for more details.

The East Coast itinerary:
1. Concord, New Hampshire: The Pierce Manse, home of Franklin Pierce
2. Boston: John F. Kennedy's Brookline birth home
3. Hyannis, Massachusetts: The Kennedy Compound, which served as the headquarters of JFK's 1960 presidential campaign
4. Newport, Rhode Island: The Eisenhower House (Bonus: The Hammersmith Farm where JFK and Jackie got married is just down the road)
5. New York City: The Chester A. Arthur House
6. Princeton, New Jersey: The Westland Mansion, where Grover Cleveland lived
7. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Wheatland, where James Buchanan lived
8. Philadelphia: The Deshler-Morris House, where George Washington camped out when the city was hit with a yellow fever epidemic
9. Washington, D.C.: President Lincoln's Cottage
10. Washington, D.C.: The Woodley Mansion, where both Grover Cleveland and Martin Van Buren lived at different times
11. Alexandria, Virginia: Mt. Vernon, George Washington's estate
12. Charlottesville, Virginia: Monticello, the home Thomas Jefferson designed (and the building on the back of the nickel)

The Midwest itinerary:
1. Canton, Ohio: The William McKinley Library & Museum, where McKinley is entombed in a marble sarcophagus
2. Cincinnati, Ohio: The William Howard Taft Historical Site, which encompasses his former home
3. Louisville, Kentucky: The Zachary Taylor House
4. Indianapolis: The Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, which includes the president's former home
5. Chicago: Barack Obama's Hyde Park Residence
6. Galena, Illinois: The Ulysses S. Grant Home
7. West Branch, Iowa (near Iowa City): The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, which includes the cottage where Hoover was born and the blacksmith shop where his father worked

The California itinerary:
1. Los Angeles: Nixon's former home on Whittier Boulevard
2. Los Angeles: Reagan's Westwood Residence
3. Santa Barbara: Rancho del Cielo, where Reagan often vacationed
4. San Jose: The Lou Henry and Herbert Hoover House

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER