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Due to its ties to the mining and manufacturing industries, the railroad industry played a huge role in the development of America. Furthermore railroads allowed for continuous travel throughout the United States. As such, railroads have been seen as a viable way to tour throughout the country. In fact, there have been two ‘Freedom Train’ tours that visited each of the 48 lower states to help celebrate how much the country has grown and the liberty that Americans have.
The Freedom Train (1946-1949)
Plans for the first Freedom Train were introduced by US Attorney General Tom C. Clark in April 1946. Although there was a renewed sense of patriotism during and shortly following World War II, which officially ended the previous September. Clark believed that many Americans were taking freedom for granted and the boost in patriotism was beginning to subside, so he partnered with a coalition that included the American Ad Council and Paramount Pictures among others to bring the Freedom Train to the rails.
The Freedom Train was led by an Alco PA Diesel locomotive that was given #1776 and nicknamed ‘Spirit of 1776’. Diesel power was in its early stages at the time, so the locomotive provided many visitors with their first close up experience with the new type of locomotive and inadvertently served as an advertisement that sped up dieselization throughout the country.
The Spirit of 1776, a diesel locomotive, led the Freedom Train beginning in 1947.
The tour began in Philadelphia on September 17th, 1947, and would tour then all 48 states over the next 13 months. The train featured multiple exhibits and historical documents including the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and US Constitution among them. Due to the importance of the documents, security and crowd control was provided by Marines that were hand selected for the honor.
Controversy arose when the train visited states in the Southeast. African-American author Langston Hughes released a poem titled “Freedom Train” which pointed to the fact that trains still had segregated cars. The poem and related public response led the Truman administration to announce that the train would be desegregated for the tour. Although this policy was mostly accepted, stops in Memphis and Birmingham were cancelled after town officials refused to have desegregated visiting hours.
By the time she pulled into Havre de Grace, Maryland, for her last official appearance on October 26, 1948, the Freedom Train had visited more than 300 cities across the country. The tour would officially end in Washington DC the following January.
The American Freedom Train (1974-76)
Nearly three decades after the Freedom Train toured the country, Ross Rowland Jr., a businessman and locomotive engineer, wanted to celebrate America’s upcoming Bicentennial. Rowland and a group of friends knew the crowds that a stream train exhibit would draw, so in 1974 they began planning a touring exhibit of American culture and artifacts, similar to the original Freedom Train, which would be called the American Freedom Train (AFT).
Reading #2101 chugs along with the Freedom Train in tow.
Although Rowland initially envisioned the tour a few years earlier, sponsorships and securing the locomotives necessary for the event took the organizers right up to the wire. Fortunately, when Opening Day happened in April 1975, the train was ready to steam. Throughout the tour, the train was led by 3 different steam locomotives:
T&P #610 on static display in Palestine. (Photo: Renelibrary via CC by 4.0)
Between opening day on April 1, 1975, and the final day on December 31, 1976, the locomotives led the tour across the contiguous 48 United States and made stops to be on display in 138 cities. Organizers estimate that 7 million people visited the train over the course of the tour, and that doesn’t include the countless number of children and adults who visited nearby tracks to catch the train as it chugged through the country.
Southern Pacific #4449 leading the American Freedom Train. (Photo: Drew Jacksich via CC by 2.0)
Post American Freedom Train Tour
Following the tour, the three locomotives went their separate ways. Fortunately all three locomotives are still preserved today. #4449 continues to steam up for excursion trips in the Pacific Northwest while #2101 (B&O Museum) and #610 (Texas State Railroad) are on static display.
For more information about the train and tour, visit this website dedicated to the history of the AFT.
This article first appeared on steamgiants.com
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