Story by Victoria McClendon-Leggett and Mike Yawn
Photos by Victoria McClendon-Leggett and Bianca Saldierna
When President George H. W. Bush died last month at the age of 94, he was the longest-living president in United States history. Born when Calvin Coolidge was President (1924), his life spanned 16 different presidential administrations. In an age of YouTube celebrities, he was a throwback—governing, according to historian Jon Meacham, as a “twentieth-century founding father.”
It was perhaps appropriate, then, that he drew upon rich presidential traditions when planning his funeral arrangements. In Washington, DC, the former President laid in state, with his coffin resting on the same catafalque employed for the funerals of Abraham Lincoln, U. S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower, and other political luminaries. He was transported in Air Force One back to Houston, where he laid in repose and was honored at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, which he and Barbara attended for more than 50 years. For the final leg of his funeral procession, he chose to be transported by train to College Station—the first such presidential train procession in almost 50 years—where he was buried on the grounds of his Presidential Library.
The Presidential Funeral Train Procession Throughout History
President Bush was the 13th United States President to travel by train as part of a funeral procession. This tradition dates back to 1848, when John Quincy Adams’ coffin was transported from Washington, DC to Massachusetts. Without advance planning or extensive collaboration, well-wishers congregated in towns through which the train traveled. From this five-day, 500 mile trip undertaken by a deceased president, a democratic tradition was born.
The best known of the presidential funeral processions was the “Lincoln Funeral Train,” which carried the slain president some 1,700 miles in 1865. This journey, according to Louis Picone—historian and author of “The President is Dead!”—was “hastily arranged,” but executed with “nary a hitch,” a planning tour-de-force.
The nine-car train took a circuitous route from Washington, DC to Springfield, IL, often with VIPs in carriage. Full stops were made in major cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, where mayors gave speeches and citizens were able to view the President in an open casket. But even in smaller towns and rural areas, determined citizens gathered near rail stations or alongside tracks to pay their respects while witnessing the procession. In all, almost nine million Americans—more than a quarter of the country—participated in this political pageantry over a 20-day period. “It has become,” notes Picone, “a part of Lincoln history and folklore as much as any part of his death.”
Subsequently, other presidential funerals incorporated train processions, but none as elaborate or as temporally lengthy as Lincoln’s. Warren G. Harding’s funeral train procession, however, was longer in miles. In 1923 a living President Harding embarked on a “Voyage of Understanding,” which began with a cross-country train tour. This odyssey was interrupted by his death in San Francisco, which necessitated a long train trip east to Washington, DC for a state funeral, and then back west to Ohio, for burial. The cross-country-plus trip totaled 3,500 miles and, like Lincoln’s, was witnessed by millions.
In this pre-television age, gathering near the railway to see the President on his final voyage “was the way to bring [people] closure,” Matthew Costello, Senior Historian with the White House Historical Association, told “The Washington Post.” It was, he continued, a way for “ordinary Americans” to say goodbye in a “much more personal” manner.
Prior to the Bush funeral train procession, the last President to opt for a presidential procession was Dwight Eisenhower, who passed away in 1969. Eisenhower’s train traveled from Washington, DC to Abilene, Kansas, traversing seven states in the process.
By contrast, President Bush’s final train trip spanned a modest 70 miles, taking the President from Spring, Texas to College Station. The decision to travel by train was more important than the distance: 170 years after John Quincy Adams initiated the tradition of a funeral train procession, President George Herbert Walker Bush carried it into the 21st century.
Knowing the long-standing tradition linking trains, U. S. history, and the presidency, SHSU’s LEAP Ambassadors immediately took note when the Bush family announced a planned funeral train. Having led trips to 23 presidential home sites, seven presidential libraries, and four presidential inaugurations, the LEAP Ambassadors had, for the first time, an opportunity to witness a presidential train funeral procession. The planning began.
After reviewing the route of the presidential funeral procession, we took an advanced scouting trip to Pinehurst and Magnolia, which we thought might provide an appropriate small-town feel, while also offering close-up access to the funeral procession. After considering criteria such as (1) access to the tracks, (2) parking, and (3) back-drop imagery, we selected Magnolia as our staging area, immediately adjacent to the City’s Historic Train Depot.
Following our scouting expedition, we packed our equipment, charged batteries, and planned for the funeral day.
Our planning paid off. When Thursday, December 6, arrived, we packed up cameras, GoPros, tripods, and a camcorder—all in the hopes that, with enough equipment and access, even amateurs could capture a memorable moment.
Befitting the occasion, it was a gray and drizzly day. The traffic was congested, particularly as we approached Magnolia, and this gave us time to observe the many businesses and schools that used their signs to honor former President Bush with special messages.
We arrived around 11:30 a.m., about two-and-a-half hours prior to the train’s estimated time of arrival—but we were not as early as hundreds of others. Already, there were crowds gathered along the tracks to say goodbye to former President Bush. The scene evoked another era, one in which locomotives were the primary form of transportation for leaders of state and citizens preferred to participate collectively and in person rather than individually and virtually.
The small-town setting also promoted this collective display of grief, patriotism, and respect. The railroad tracks cut through old-town Magnolia—alongside the community’s historic depot—reminding visitors of the vital role that the railroad played in the area’s past. Townsfolk—and visitors such as us—came together, well positioned for a fine view of history in the making.
Close to 4,000 people joined us alongside the tracks in Magnolia to watch this custom-made locomotive chug by. We divided our team of Ambassadors to maximize photographic coverage: two people on the east side of the tracks; two people on the west side of the tracks. We set up a friend’s spherical camera, capable of capturing video in 360 degrees. We positioned our camcorder. We asked a nice stranger if we could put a GoPro on the roof of his truck; he said yes. And we each took cameras, hoping we could capture a special moment from what was shaping up to be a special day.
If the people around us had less equipment than we did, they had more signage and props. People carried small flags; they held signs; some proudly displayed George H. W. Bush style “whimsical socks” in honor of the 41st President. Others looked on somberly.
Many people—and we are not admitting to being part of this—attempted to place coins on the train tracks in the hopes of getting a flattened memento. These enterprising folks were chased away by workers in bright yellow vests, who spoke of safety concerns. (Although these warnings frustrated spectators’ attempts at souvenir collection, they were well-founded. In 1968, when Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train—a rare funeral train for a non-President—rolled through Elizabeth, New Jersey, two spectators stood too close to the tracks, and they were killed.)
Drones buzzed and flitted above the crowd, filming and taking photos. Bomb dogs prowled, leading their security handlers through the crowds in a search for explosives. News reporters selected individuals who were photogenic, picturesque, or colorful to interview, and a Texas DPS helicopter hovered overhead and, through loud speakers, urged people to stay off the tracks.
We heard the train whistle first, and then we were able to see the engine lights twinkling in the distance, cutting through the cold, gray day. Children squealed and jumped while their parents half-heartedly urged quiet. People whipped out their phones with hopes of capturing the moment.
As the train approached, some cheered and applauded, celebrating the former President’s long and successful life. Others were somber. Members of the military dotted the crowd, and they were all at attention, respectful.
As the train pulled into view, it slowed, giving those congregated a chance to savor the moment. Men removed their hats; veterans saluted; the cheering became louder, as did the train’s whistle.
And what a train! Designed and manufactured by Union Pacific, the locomotive was titled “4141” (Bush was the nation’s 41st President), bore the Presidential Seal, and was painted in hues of blue and white, which, according to a Union Pacific press release, captured the “colors and elements of the Air Force One used during Mr. Bush’s presidency.”
It carried 12 cars, the fifth of which contained the President’s coffin and a soldier who stood at attention throughout the two-and-a-half hour journey. The President’s car also featured two long windows, allowing spectators to see the coffin inside. Additional cars carried the President’s family—including President George W. Bush—who waved at spectators along the tracks.
And, in a moment, the train passed, receding into the distance. The yellow caboose—featuring a gold Presidential Seal encased in stainless steel—captured our attention until it, too, disappeared into the gray horizon.
We stayed for a moment, watching as others returned to vehicles haphazardly parked, while still others lingered, sharing their stories, memories, and thoughts. Then the rains came, and we, along with thousands of other “ordinary Americans,” returned to our vehicles, somewhat somber, but more grateful for the responsibilities and virtues associated with democratic traditions.
While conducting research for this article, the current LEAP Ambassadors learned that the train “4141” was unveiled by President Bush and Union Pacific in 2005, when the Bush Library was also introducing an exhibit on trains. As luck would have it, the very first cohort of LEAP Ambassadors (then called SHSU Junior Fellows) attended that event and witnessed the first leg, as it turned out, of the train’s historic journey. They also heard the ever-gracious President Bush speak about his fondness for trains, the Bush Library’s then-new exhibit on trains, and the train commissioned in his name. Thirteen years later, a new cohort of Ambassadors, just as interested in participating in civic affairs, witnessed the final leg of the train’s historic journey.
John Q. Adams (1848)
Zachary Taylor (1850)
Abraham Lincoln (1865)
Andrew Johnson (1875)
James Garfield (1881)
Ulysses S. Grant (1885)
Chester Arthur (1886)
William McKinley (1901)
Warren G. Harding (1923)
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1945)
Herbert Hoover (1964)
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1969)
George H. W. Bush (2018)
Source: Louis Picone, “The President is Dead! The Extraordinary Stories of the Presidential Deaths, Final Days, Burials, and Beyond”