50 Years Later RFK Funeral Train Memories Remain

In June 1968 I was entering my sophomore year of high school and had begun to follow current events in newspapers and on television.

I was a teenager and enjoyed “sleeping in” on summer weekdays rather than having to get up and get ready to go to school.

I was lying in bed on June 5 when I learned the news about the shooting of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for president and had just won the California primary.

I heard my father tell my mother about the shooting as he walked down the hall outside my bedroom while going to eat breakfast in the dining room before leaving for work.

He had heard it on the radio as he got ready that morning.

Three days later, a Saturday, we spent the day watching the live TV coverage of RFK’s funeral mass and the train that took his body from New York to Washington.

We watched because history was being made in a year that had already made a lot of it, including the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

I also watched because I wanted to see the train. At the time I was only a distant railroad enthusiast.

I could see Illinois Central passenger trains from my backyard across farm fields, but they were a mile away.

I would try to get a closer look at those trains using a toy telescope I had bought years earlier during a visit to Niagara Falls, but it could only do so much.

Seldom did I get to see passenger trains up close unless we happened to be stopped for one at a grade crossing. I rarely got to ride a train.

I had read about passenger trains in newspapers and magazines, but most of that news involved the efforts of the railroads to discontinue their passenger trains.

Some of my memories of the RFK funeral train remain as vivid as if they were made five days ago rather than 50 years ago.

I remember that it left New York late and kept getting later as it ran southward.

I remember watching people descending the stairs at New York’s Penn Station to board the train.

There were many celebrities in the crowd and I specifically remembered that the Smothers Brothers, a pair of TV comedians, were among them.

I remember how crowds lined the tracks and some people were killed when struck by another train.

When the funeral train emerged from the Hudson River tunnel and headed across New Jersey, it was shown live from an airplane or helicopter.

I remember the two GG1 locomotives had Penn Central heralds. A TV announcer said the engineer was of Irish descent.

There were occasional glimpses of the train as it passed through stations. At one of them, a CBS crew member threw off film that was promptly developed and shown on the air.

I relished seeing the passengers sitting in the coaches while a reporter – it might have been Harry Reasoner – described the scene aboard the train.

My memory bank also remembers a report about someone being electrocuted or seriously injured after touching a live overhead wire while standing on a rail car.

And there was a report about conflict between Penn Central officials and the Kennedy family over the handling of the train, including the fact that it was taking twice as long to get to Washington as had been expected.

The burial ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was held in darkness and I watched that, too, just as I had watched the funeral mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York more than eight hours earlier.

So what does all of this mean today? Probably not much. My memories are little different than those of millions of others who followed the news that day although it is unlikely that most of them were as interested in the train as I was.

My memories of the RFK funeral train receded into a far corner of my mind. I had not thought about it in quite some time until getting an email message from fellow Akron Railroad Club member Paul Woodring asking for my help in finding a list of the train’s consist.

Paul had been researching that thinking that perhaps one of the cars now owned by the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad might have been used by the RFK funeral train. That turned out not to be the case.

There have been a number of 50-year retrospectives about the RFK funeral train, including two photo exhibits. At least one book has been published about it.

Yet the anniversary has all but escaped the railfan world.

In the retrospectives I’ve seen or read the train has been of secondary importance to the fact that nearly 2 million people were trackside to get a fleeting glimpse of something they considered to be larger than themselves.

They came from all walks of life but most were ordinary working class people. There was unity of purpose that seems to have been lost today. Or has it?

Most of those still alive who saw the train the train probably remember little about it. They were not interested then or now in such things as how many cars it had or the details about those cars.

They would not have noticed that Kennedy’s casket was carried in Penn Central business car 120 and that the car in front of the 120 was still lettered for the New York Central, one of the two railroads that had merged four months earlier to form Penn Central.

As a railroad enthusiast and historian who has expended many hours trying to dig up what many would consider esoteric facts, I understand what motivates such quests.

There is a sense of purpose in trying to piece together forgotten history in order to tell a story.

There is a place in that story for such details as the history of the specific passenger cars that were marshaled together to make up the train even if the larger interest in that information is quite limited.

What is more important is the context in which the train operated and why millions waited for hours on a hot, steamy day to see a train pass by in a matter of a few seconds.

For most of those trackside and the others who watched the events from afar on television, it was a story about collective loss, including a loss of hope.

Some losses stick with you even if they are seldom in the front of your mind at any given time.

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