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Title: Presidential Inaugural Train Trips

Collection: N Scale Model Trains
Category: Prototypes and History
Publication Date:
Last Modification Date: 2018-01-18

Throughout history, a number of American presidents have traveled to their inauguration by train. Here is the brief story of three such trips taken by William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama.

William Henry Harrison, 1841

William Henry Harrison (our 9th president who died after 32 days in office, March 4th 1841- April 4th, 1841) became the first president-elect to travel by train to an inauguration. (He was also first to campaign via rail). Harrison’s journey to Washington DC began in early February 1841 and included travel by boat and stagecoach as well as rail. Travelling east from Cincinnati, Harrison boarded the Baltimore and Ohio RR (the oldest U.S. RR, which began construction in the late 1820s) in Frederick, MD and reached Washington D.C. via Baltimore. In what is considered to be the longest inaugural speech in history, Harrison spoke for close to two hours, uttering more than 8,800 words (George Washington’s second inaugural address is by far the shortest at 135 words).

William Henry Harrison, 1841
Presidential Cars: 40" steel, single plug door boxcar without roof walk

In Harrison’s swearing-in speech, he warns about excessively divided political parties: "To me it appears perfectly clear that the interest of the country requires that the violence of the spirit by which those parties are at this time governed must be greatly mitigated, if not entirely extinguished, or consequences will ensue which are appalling to be thought of."

Train Route of Lincoln's Rail Journey to the Capitol

Abraham Lincoln, 1861-1865

Some 20 years later, with the threat of Civil War in the air, Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, also traveled to his inauguration via train. Lincoln’s Inaugural Train Trip in February 1861 lasted 13 days, spanned 7 states, and more than 1,500 miles. During the trip, it is estimated that Lincoln spoke to about 1 million people and gave at least 75 speeches. While at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA, Lincoln tells the crowd: “In my hands are the task of restoring peace to our distracted country.” Eleven states had already seceded the Union with seven doing so since Lincoln's election.

Abraham Lincoln, 1861-1865
Presidential Cars: 40" steel, single plug door boxcar without roof walk

The trip, which began in Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, IL, was fraught with no less than three assassination attempts on the soon-to-be president’s life. This caused the 6’ 4’’ Kentucky born politician and lawyer to don a disguise (rumors spread that Lincoln dressed as a woman to conceal himself) and hop from train to train in order to sneak into D.C. unseen and as a result without any fanfare as well. Writing at the time, George Templeton Strong, Northern diarist described Lincoln's actions as "surreptitious nocturnal dodging" and warned that if evidence of an assassination plot could not be found, Lincoln's actions "...will be used to damage his moral position and throw ridicule on his Administration." It is said that Lincoln later regretted the entire incident, saying: "I did not then, nor do I now believe I should have been assassinated had I gone through Baltimore..."

Barack Obama, 2009-2017 and his political hero, Abraham Lincoln

In 2009, president-elect Barack Obama (our 44th president and first U.S. African American president) included a symbolic train ride symbolic train ride (in a vintage 1939 rail car) from Philadelphia to Washington as part of his journey to the Capitol. The trip was devised in part to evoke the inaugural train journey of President Lincoln, Obama's political hero, who stood fast against political discontent of his day and in 1863 signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy. Once in office, Obama also kept a bust of Lincoln in the Oval Office.

Vice president-elect, Joe Biden and President-elect Barack Obama with their spouses, Jill and Michelle

Barack Obama, 2009-2017
Presidential Cars: 40" steel, single plug door boxcar without roof walk

Just as Lincoln did in 1861, Obama gave a speech in Philadelphia, where he cited Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and the founding fathers. He said: "Starting now, let's take up in our own lives the work of perfecting our union," he said at the historic 30th Street train station. "Let's build a government that is responsible to the people and accept our own responsibilities as citizens to hold our government accountable. ... Let's make sure this election is not the end of what we do to change America, but the beginning and the hope for the future."

Links to learn more:
National Parks Service commemorates the 150th anniversary of president-elect Lincoln journey from Springfield, IL to Washington, DC with re-enactment of trip

The Abraham Lincoln Blog

The Lincoln Inaugural Train (The 1861 Journey of President-elect Abraham Lincoln to Washington, D.C. by Scott D. Trostel

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