I’m pleased–and mighty relieved–to report that Robert Klara’s FDR’s Funeral Train, which I finished last night, is very, very good.
I’m relieved because ol’ Engine Bob is a pal (and former Trainjotting columnist!), and it would be really awkward if his book wasn’t any good. But that’s not the case at all. Klara digs through some formerly classified files and finds troves of intriguing stuff–a KGB agent on board the train that brought FDR from the place of his death in Georgia up to Hyde Park in New York, a heartbroken Eleanor learning details of her husband’s mistress, the newly minted prez Harry Truman pondering his historical speech, and what exactly to do with the atomic bomb, while on board the train. Most shocking is the sheer clout on board FDR’s train: the entire Supreme Court, FDR’s Cabinet, Truman, other key advisors–all on the same train for multiple days. Such a security risk is absolutely unthinkable today. It’s also particulary interesting when the train wends its way into the New York area. On April 15, 1945, the funeral train hit Penn Station around 4:15 a.m., docking on Track 11. Thousands of people had turned up at that ungodly hour with hopes of seeing FDR’s casket, or at least his train, but the train never was visible to the public in midtown Manhattan, staying deep underground all the while.
From Penn it zipped under Manhattan and the East River, then came out of the VErnon Avenue tunnet in Long Island City, then hit the Hell Gate Bridge and headed north.
As Klara notes, the train had to go way out of its way in order to connect from the Pennsylvania railroad tracks to the Central, which would take it north. It went from the East River up to Westchester and New Rochelle Junction, then to Woodlawn for the Central’s Harlem line, and eventually to Mott Haven, where it hopped on the Central’s Hudson Line for the final leg of the trip.
Mott Haven was of particularly concern to the Secret Service, as the train was exposed to blocks of apartment buildings for about 20 minutes—in broad daylight, no less.
The train would again hit the city on its return trip to Washington—with President Truman, of course, but FDR himself disembarked and buried. In Penn Station, FDR’s son James—who’d missed the northbound trip due to his service in World War II—jumped on to see his mother and siblings.
“At about 4 p.m., James left the stationmaster’s office and went downstairs to the concourse. A phalanx of Secret Service and FBI men, New York City cops and military police were guarding the gate and stairs. The wall of agents and police parted to let James Roosevelt slip through, and the Marine walked slowsly down the ornate, brass-railed steps to the platform. Hundreds of New Yorkers watched him silently from above. Hissing quietly beneath the high-voltage catenary wire, the electric locomotive slipped down Track 12 at 4:10, pulling the funeral train behind it.”
FDR’s Funeral Train is a fun ride both for history buffs and train buffs.
If you’re neither, Klara’s sparkling prose alone merits a read.
To wit, the book’s first line:
“Late into the afternoon of Thursday, March 29, 1945, the warm, languid breezes blowing off the Tidal Basin carried with them the only promise that Washington D.C. ever entirely keeps: a summer of voracious humidity.”
Bravo, Engine Bob.
[image: Tom Strenk]