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Western Pennsylvania’s history with presidential funeral trains |

Western Pennsylvania’s history with presidential funeral trains

The Associated Press
| Thursday, December 6, 2018 2:36 p.m

The late President George H.W. Bush was carried across Texas on Thursday for his burial in College Station. It was the eighth presidential funeral train in U.S. history, several of which passed through Pittsburgh, the region or other parts of Pennsylvania.

James Garfield, 1881

Assassin Charles J. Guiteau on the morning of July 2, 1881, shot Garfield in the back at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. With the bullet still lodged in his pancreas, the 20th U.S. president died Sept. 19, 1881, in the coastal village of Elberon, N.J.

Engraving of James A. Garfield’s assassination, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

Smithsonian Magazine


Garfield’s funeral train passed through Western Pennsylvania as it carried the late president from Washington to his burial site in Cleveland.

President Garfield’s funeral train.

Library of Congress


According to an account of the procession published in the Detroit Free Press:

The train left Altoona on Sept. 24 and rolled through Johnstown around 3:15 a.m. – where some 3,000 people had gathered at the train station. “All were silent. The bells of all the churches, schoolhouses and engine companies were tolled.”

The train arrived at the Derry train station in Westmoreland County about 4:30 a.m. “Hundreds had gathered here and the same scenes were enacted.”

At 5:40 a.m., the funeral train pulled into Pittsburgh’s Union Station (later known as the Pennsylvania Station), located at Grant Street and Liberty Avenue.

“… fully 5,000 people had assembled at the depot and in the streets through which the train was to pass. No demonstration was made saving the tolling of all the bells throughout the city and firing of minute guns by Knapp’s Battery. … The crowd stood with their heads bowed, uncovered. The scene was very solemn and impressive, and will not soon be forgotten by those participating.”

The train remained at the station for 14 minutes as it was shifted to the Cleveland & Pittsburgh track. At Mrs. Garfield’s request, the family car also was moved from behind the one carrying her husband’s remains to the rear of the first section of cars.

“No one ventured a word above a whisper, and the funeral party kept themselves out of sight.”

The train then crossed the trestle to Allegheny City, now the North Side.

“As many more people as had assembled in Pittsburgh, lined the tracks through Allegheny City, and the parks along the line of the railroad. Where it passes through West Park the tracks were covered with plants in full bloom, and beautiful and expensive floral tributes. The train steamed out of Allegheny City at 6:20, amid the tolling of bells, but no other demonstrations.”

William McKinley, 1901

While greeting people at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sept. 6, 1901, unemployed mill worker and anarchist Leon Czolgosz of Detroit fired two shots from a revolver into McKinley’s chest. The 25th U.S. president died Sept. 14, six months after his second inauguration.

Assassination of President McKinley.

Library of Congress


His funeral train also made its way from Washington to Ohio, where McKinley was buried in Canton.

According to an account published by the Harrisburg Telegraph:

Nearly 10,000 people packed the Altoona station as McKinley’s train, with its engines draped in black, arrived at 5:40 a.m. on Sept. 18, 1901. It had been expected at 3:20 a.m. after leaving Harrisburg.

President McKinley’s funeral train.

Library of Congress


“The Altoona City Band rendered “Nearer My God To Thee” and “Onward Christian Soldiers” while the train was in the station yard. Police and railroad official kept the station clear of people.” It stayed for 10 minutes to change crews and add extra engines to pull the train up and over the Allegheny Mountains.

“Mountaineers with axes on their shoulders came down from the steep slopes to pay their homage with uncovered heads.”

The train rolled into Johnstown around 7 a.m., with “half the population” of town lining the tracks above and below the station. “A detachment of company H, Fifth regiment, National Guard of Pennsylvania, fired minute guns.” Bells tolled throughout the city.

“Miners with lamps in their caps rushed forth from the tunnels at the train’s approach, and the steel mills along the Conemaugh River were emptied.”

“A little further on, the train passed a string of coke ovens, the tenders at the mouths of the glowing furnaces with their hats in their hands.

“At Jeannette were a thousand or more glass workers with their families.

“At Pitcairn, the end of the railroad division, train crews and engines were changed, and the railroad men were out in force.

“At Wilmerding, the employees of the Westinghouse Airbrake Company were at the track and at East Pittsburg, where is located one of the largest electrical plants in the world, were several thousand people.

“The train had now practically entered the suburbs of Pittsburg, that city of brawn and muscle which has just passed through the convulsion of a great strike, and the industrial workers were strung along the track in solid lines.”

“At Bessemer, the huge stacks of the Carnegie steel plant were pouring forth dense volumes of smoke and flame, and under this black canopy the toilers gathered in dense throngs, standing mutely with uncovered heads. Just beyond the great mills of Braddock gave forth another multitude of grimy workmen, and to the left, across the river, where is located that other great hive of industry, Homestead, the wharves were lined with men and women.”

Rolling into Pittsburgh was an impressive scene.

“Along both sides of the track for miles were solid walls of humanity. In some places the people stood twenty deep while the embankments were black with them. On the top of every freight car was a human hedge. The overhanging bridges bent beneath their burden. The roofs of houses were lined. All stood with uncovered heads while the bells of all the churches were tolling.”

The first train carrying President Theodore Roosevelt rolled through Pittsburgh around 9 a.m., after being expected two hours earlier.

The funeral train carrying McKinley’s body followed, reaching Union Station at 9:35 a.m. It did not stop.

“It is estimated that not less than 50,000 people were at Union station and 25,000 at the Allegheny depot, while the crowd that viewed the funeral train from its entrance into Pittsburg until it crossed the city line in Allegheny, was not less than 250,000. On the face of everyone there were signs of the deepest feeling and mourning.”

Church bells tolled throughout the city. From atop Mt. Washington, a section of Battery B fired a salute.

William Harding, 1923

Coming back from a trip to Alaska, Harding fell ill from what was believe to be food poisoning. His presidential train rushed to San Francisco, where he arrived July 29, 1923. On Aug. 2, Harding died from a heart attack as his wife read to him.

Warren Harding

Library of Congress


Harding’s body was transported some 3,000 miles from California to Washington, before he was buried in Marion, Ohio.

President Harding’s funeral train.

Library of Congress


According to a report from United Press:

The train arrived in Western Pennsylvania on Aug. 7, running several hours behind schedule.

So many people crowded the Baltimore & Ohio tracks heading into Pittsburgh that the train crawled along at 10 mph.

“Despite the solemnity of the occasion, many silent thousands sought souvenirs. At Zelienople, coins were placed on the rails and eagerly snatched up after the train had passed over them.”

It pulled into Pittsburgh’s Laughlin Junction at 12:40 p.m. Crews changed for the final leg to Washington.

“Countless thousands stood with bared heads as the train crept slowly through the endless line of mourners. A delegation representing the city boarded the train and laid a wreath on the casket containing the dead chieftain.”

The train departed Pittsburgh at 1:19 p.m., expecting to arrive in Washington around 11 p.m. after climbing through the mountains to Maryland and rolling through a number of cities.

“Tens of thousands, of men, women and children lined the tracks for miles in the vicinity of Glen Wood and Laughlln Junction. Many of these had come in automobiles, taxicabs and street cars about midnight so as to secure places of advantage.”

Twice in Pennsylvania

John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head on April 14, 1865, during a performance of the light comedy “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Lincoln died the next morning.

Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Library of Congress


His body lie in state in Washington for several days as other services were held in the capital from April 15-21, 1865.

The funeral train carrying Abraham Lincoln traveled nearly 1,700 miles after leaving Washington on April 21 before arriving in Springfield, Ill., on May 3. The route did not pass through southwestern Pennsylvania, though it did cross into the state twice – on the first day when it stopped in Harrisburg before going to Philadelphia on April 22. Private and public viewings were held there for two days.

After leaving Buffalo, N.Y., on April 27, the Lincoln Special passed through Erie on its way to Cleveland, where it arrived April 28.

Map of President Lincoln’s funeral train route.

Library of Congress



• Accounts of the presidents’ deaths are from the MILLER CENTER at the University of Virginia, which specializes in U.S. presidential and political history.

• Pittsburgh was spelled without an “H” from 1891 to 1911.

Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review news editor. Reach him at

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