Posts Tagged ‘Robert F. Kennedy’

50 Years Ago Today: The RFK Funeral Train

June 8, 2018

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, 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

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.

50 Years Later RFK Funeral Train Memories Remain

June 8, 2018

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.