50 Years Ago Today: The RFK Funeral Train

It was 50 years ago today that a special Penn Central passenger train carried the body of Robert F. Kennedy from New York to Washington on the day of his funeral.

Kennedy, who was shot in the kitchen area of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles just after midnight on June 5 and died about 26 hours later, had just won the California primary in his quest for the Democratic nomination for president in 1968.

The funeral mass was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and his body was taken to Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington for burial.

Akron Railroad Club member Paul Woodring has been conducting research on the consist of the funeral train on a hunch that a car now used on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad might have run on the train. That turned out not to be the case.

He sent along a copy of an internal Penn Central memorandum that was posted recently at Railway Preservation News.org, commenting, “This looks like the real thing for the time period, right down to the typos.”

Paul writes that the baggage car designated in this memo, 7534, was not the baggage car actually used, which was 7607. It is not clear why there was a substation in cars.

The memo’s use of the term “Congo” (Congressional Service) coach may have been a misleading since Paul said it was his understanding that the Congressional coaches were fluted sided and 12 of the cars used were the converted slab-side former Budd-built roomette cars such as the ones the CVSR has.

A large number of PC employees apparently were assigned to work on this special move, with perhaps between 85 and 100 employees directly assigned to this train for that day.

That does not include yard crews, station personnel, operators and supervisors who had to deal with it as part of their regular shifts.

Apparently someone in the mechanical department didn’t get the memo, because station mechanical personnel were not prepared to remove a window from the lounge of Business car No. 120 to pass the casket through.

That resulted in a two-hour delay after the funeral party had arrived at the station as PC workers sought to remove the window.

Although PC management ordered opposing freight trains held until after the special passed, opposing passenger trains were permitted to pass until an incident in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where an eastbound passenger train from Chicago, The Admiral, struck and killed two and injured several onlookers who surged off the platform onto the tracks as the funeral train passed.

The funeral train was carded to take just under four hours, but actually took nearly eight hours to reach Washington, arriving near dusk.

The major television network televised the train’s progress live.

The funeral train is the subject of a photograph exhibit that opened in March and runs through June 10 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that is titled: “The Train: RFK’s Last Journey”

The exhibit was reviewed in an article published on the website of the New Yorker that can be found at https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/robert-f-kennedys-funeral-train-fifty-years-later

A focus of the exhibit is 21 images made by Look magazine staff photographer Paul Fusco, who was aboard the train.

Fusco said later that he expected to primarily focus on making images at the burial ceremonies but after the train emerged from the tunnels beneath the Hudson River he noticed that hundreds of people were lining the tracks.

He went to an open vestibule window and began photographing the crowds along the way.

Fusco had three cameras and exposed about a thousand frames of Kodachrome slide film.

Most of those who lined the tracks were working class individuals of all ages and races. Some estimate that the number who turned out to watch the funeral train passed was 2 million. Some stood for hours under a hot sun to see the train.

Look only published two of Fusco’s images and both were printed in black and white.

Other images began seeing publication starting in 1998 on the 30th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.

Many of those who stood next to the tracks were also holding cameras and Dutch filmmaker Rein Jelle Terpstra spent four years tracking down as many of those amateur photographers as he could to obtain their movies slides and prints.

Some of those images are included in the San Francisco exhibit.

“The images are technically completely different from Fusco’s prints. The colors in the snapshots are faded, and the images on the slides are tiny. The work is almost conceptual: it’s the adventure of recovering the pictures, not the pictures themselves, that make the art experience,” wrote New Yorker staff writer Louis Menand.

Several people who experienced riding the train or viewing it have been quoted in recent news stories about that day.

“I was struck by the size of the crowds,” said RFK campaign aide John Anderson in an interview with CBS news. “Every now and then there would be one or two people standing with a flag or sign, it was very emotional, still is.”

John Malone was 20 at the time and stood next to the tracks in Elizabeth, New Jersey, watching the funeral train go by just before two people were struck by The Admiral.

“The sense was that you were at a wake,” the retired judge told CBS news. “You were paying your respects, and just here to do that and stay quietly waiting for the train to come by.

“In one of the houses here I could hear a woman crying, and as the train came by she just called out, ‘Oh Bobby, oh Bobby.’ ”

Bennett Levin was 28 when he watched the train pass in Philadelphia. Now the owner of Pennsylvania Railroad business car 120, which carried RFK’s casket, he told CBS news that people lined up three deep on bridges over the tracks,  most of them working class people.

“And the crowd even though the train was hours late stood there reverently waiting for the train. And, you know, that in itself said an awful lot for the esteem that the people held Robert Kennedy in,” Levin said.

The International Center of Photography has an exhibit through Sept. 2 in New York that is titled “RFK Funeral Train: The People’s View”

That exhibit highlights the images collected by filmmaker Terpstra.

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One Response to “50 Years Ago Today: The RFK Funeral Train”

  1. pwwoodring Says:

    I made a minor error in my email to Craig about the PC memo. The name of the web site where it was posted is Railway Preservation News.org, not com.

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