Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Other Presidential Car

Everyone knows about Air Force One, although most people believe that the title refers to a single airplane.  Actually, this call sign is given to any Air Force plane carrying the president.

Similarly, when the president is aboard the large Sea King helicopter operated by the United States Marines, the helicopter is known as Marine One.  Any Marine aircraft containing the president would be so designated, regardless of the type of aircraft.

While the presidential limousine--a General Motors Cadillac--is sometimes referred to as Cadillac One by the press, the vehicle doesn't actually have an official name.  The Secret Service, however, has given the car an unofficial name, "The Beast." 

Personally, I've always believed the car should be known as "Dracula," since it always travels with a refrigerated blood bank in the car's trunk, stocked with the president's blood type.  The vehicle is a combination armored car and bloodmobile.

Sadly, the president no longer has a yacht, (the USS Sequoia was sold by President Carter in 1977), and if President George W. Bush had a special name for his mountain bike, I have been unable to locate it.

That leaves just one last piece of presidential transportation gear: U.S. Car No. 1, the official railroad car of the Commander in Chief.  Yes, the Presidential Railroad Car.  Actually, there have been several of them through the years.

The first one belonged to Abraham Lincoln and was a passenger car that had been  refitted for the president's use during the Civil War.  The resulting car, named The United States, was so opulent that Lincoln refused to use it, believing that such an ostentatious display of luxury was unseemly while the country was at war.  This was the first private railroad car in America.

Unfortunately, in the end, Lincoln did travel in the car: it carried his coffin from the capitol to Springfield, Illinois, making stops in most of the larger Northern cities along the way.  On a trip lasting over 1600 miles, the car visited over 300 communities where untold thousands of grieving Americans met the train along the way.

Presidents certainly traveled by train after Lincoln, but simply used whichever premium Pullman car was available.  The Pullman company built rail cars in several grades, and the president usually used the highest quality available.   Since trips were relatively short (Presidents then did not conduct endless campaign trips, but left undignified campaigning to minions), there was not much use for an official car.

One of those cars used temporarily by a president--a Pullman Palace coach--still survives.  President Theodore Roosevelt rode in the car several times on trips to Texas, but today it is part of a bed & breakfast inn just outside of Fredericksburg, Texas.  If you have a desire to sleep where Teddy did, it will set you back about $225 a night.

President Taft used a Pullman Car named the Mayflower to travel to El Paso, Texas, in October 1909, to meet Mexican President Porfirio Diaz.  The two men met in El Paso, then journeyed across the Rio Grande to a magnificent dinner in Ciudad Juarez, where they dined on a gold and silver dining service that had once belonged to the Emperor Maximilian.  This was the first international travel by a sitting president of either country.  Just 19 months later, the Diaz government would fall with the capture of Ciudad Juarez that was the beginning of the lengthy Mexican Revolution.

Three years later the Mayflower railroad car would be used by former President Theodore Roosevelt, as he unsuccessfully ran for the Presidency in 1912.  Campaigning as a "Bull Moose," Roosevelt set up a grueling campaign schedule, often speaking from the rear platform of the Mayflower as many as 30 times a day, at every "whistle stop" and train station in the country.  This schedule was prematurely halted in Milwaukee after the former president, en route to give a 90 minute speech, was shot in the chest by a would-be assassin.  Though wounded, Roosevelt still made the speech, then spent the next several weeks recuperating in a hospital.

When Woodrow Wilson toured the country in 1919 to drum up support for the Versailles Treaty, he used the same railroad car--the Mayflower--throughout the trip.  Wilson spoke from the rear  platform of the car across America.  This trip, like Roosevelt's, came to a premature end when the President suffered a cerebral thrombosis (a stroke) and had to return to the White House for a lengthy recovery.

The Federal, a 1911 Pullman business car--which was used extensively by Presidents Taft and Wilson--is still riding the rails and is available for charter.  If you even wondered how much this costs--you can't afford it.  On the other hand, since it sleeps eight (and two of the double brass beds are original), at least you could take a few rich friends and split the cost. 

In the end, however, the ultimate presidential railroad car has to be the Ferdinand Magellan, officially known as U.S. Car No. 1.  This is the only railroad car ever rebuilt exclusively for presidential use, and is the heaviest railroad passenger car ever used.

In 1928, the Pullman company built six large luxury cars, named for famous explorers, for private charter.  In 1941, President Frankly D. Roosevelt accepted the recommendations of his aides to have one of these cars refitted for his use.  The entire car was armor-plated, the windows were replaced with bullet-proof glass three inches thick, and two emergency escape hatches were added.

The resulting car is 84 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 15 feet tall.   Adding all the armor plating doubled the cars weight to 285,000 pounds.  Inside the coach are a presidential suite, two guest bedrooms, a dining room that can double as a conference room, and a spacious observation lounge.

This luxury train car even sported air conditioning. Special bunkers held 12,500 pounds of ice blocks.  Water sprayed over the ice was used to chill metal coils circulating air to the inside of the compartments.  This water was collected and pumped back to spray again over the ice blocks.  During the Eisenhower administration, this system was converted to a more modern refrigeration system.

For security purposes, the name "Ferdinand Magellan" was painted over, leaving only the "Pullman," so that from a distance, the car appeared to be an ordinary railroad car.  When it traveled, several other cars always traveled along with it, providing space for crew quarters, a kitchen, and one entire car, nicknamed "The Crate,"  that carried the massive radio and communication gear required to keep the president connected to the government while he traveled.

FDR loved his train and traveled extensively on it throughout the war.  When he traveled by airplane to North Africa--the first sitting president to use an airplane for international travel--it was U.S. Car No. 1 that took him to the airport in Miami.  Between trips, the railroad car was hidden at various secure locations around Washington (occasionally in the sub-basement of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing--a building that obviously already had excellent security.)

Sadly, the car was with FDR in Georgia when he died.  When the Secret Service tried to move the president's coffin into the rolling fortress, it proved impossible to remove any of the incredibly heavy bullet proof windows to get the coffin into it, resulting in its returning to the capitol in one of the cars used to house the train's staff.  Eleanor Roosevelt and President and Mrs. Truman rode in the presidential car, directly behind the car containing the coffin, to Hyde Park for the funeral.

Both Truman and Eisenhower used the train extensively for official business and campaign trips.  The famous photo of Truman holding the newspaper erroneously stating that his opponent had won the 1948 election, was taken with him standing on the rear of the presidential rail car. 

Even by the middle of the Truman administration, presidential planes were beginning to eliminate the need for presidential trains.  Where FDR had loved to travel across America at a stately 30 MPH, Truman demanded speed and had the trains moving along at speeds up to 80 MPH, something that terrified every engineer who found the heavy car attached to his train.

U.S. Car No. 1 was declared surplus to government needs in 1958 and sold to the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami, Florida.  The train, on display inside a large building at the museum, was directly in the path of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.  The building was destroyed, and two large steel beams fell directly on top of the Pullman car.  All of the cars inside the shed were heavily damaged--including two cars that were snapped in half.  All, except U.S. Car No. 1, that is--the armor plating worked well so that the car only needed to be repainted.

This is not quite the end of the story, however.  In 1984, when President Reagan was campaigning for reelection, his staff asked to borrow the car.  For a single day, President Reagan made speeches from the rear of the car at campaign stops between Toledo and Dayton, Ohio.

Who knows?  The car is still around, the track system is still there....maybe the story is not over.

No comments:

Post a Comment