11 Feb 2013

Lost Capitol Hill: Storage at the Navy Yard.

tnLast week, we learned about the history of the rail lines at the Navy Yard, and how they were used to move goods in and out of that manufacturing facility. But the tracks were also used for something quite different: storage.

The first president to ride in a train was Andrew Jackson, who took the short trip from Ellicott’s Mills to Baltimore in 1833. Thereafter, train travel became the norm, with Abraham Lincoln using this mode of transport to arrive in DC to take office both as a representative, and as president-elect. Both times, he took normal trains, and traveled in the cars like any other. During his presidency, an opulent private rail car was built for him to use, but he never did so – until after his death, when it was used on his long voyage back to Springfield.

Lincoln's rail car is shown in Alexandria, in this 1865 picture (LOC)

Lincoln’s rail car is shown in Alexandria, in this 1865 picture (LOC)

Over the next decades, presidents used luxurious private Pullman cars. Built to transport robber barons around the country in the highest style, they were the perfect vehicle for a president in those pre-air-travel days. None of the rail cars had been built specifically for the president, nor were they owned by the US government.

This would change in 1942. President Roosevelt, already well-known for his travel by train, had a Pullman car named Ferdinand Magellan rebuilt for his use. It was an impressive beast, weighing more than any other passenger rail car every used in the United States. It had armor plating all around, bullet resistant glass, air-conditioned (though the system was quite primitive, requiring the constant addition of ice to work) and two emergency escape hatches. It was ready for operation at the end of 1942.

FDR would travel all throughout the country, going about 50,000 miles over the next two years, including his final trip to Warm Springs, Georgia.

In between trips, however, the issue came up as to where to park this monster. A place near the White House, and well-shielded from harm was required. The eventual choice fell to the Navy Yard, where it could easily find a spot along the 9 miles of track while waiting for the next trip.

After FDR’s death, President Truman picked up where his predecessor had left off, and continued to ride around the country in style. The shot where Truman was holding up the “Dewey Defeats Truman” newspaper was taken on the back of Ferdinand Magellan. Eisenhower used the car as well, including for trips up to his Gettysburg ranch, but by then, air travel had become the usual mode of transport, and the car was sold off, and not replaced.


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