The idea for the second American Freedom Train (nearly three decades after the original one in the late 1940’s) was first conceived by successful broker Ross Rowland, Jr. who first thought of the idea in 1969 when he saw the popularity of the Golden Spike ceremony in Utah, which celebrated the centennial of the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion. However, Rowland realized that for the train to become reality would require a lot of work in a short period of time. He first began soliciting the idea for a second coming of the Freedom Train in 1971 but found little success in the way of sponsorships; no one believed that a steam-powered, cross-country excursion to celebrate the nation’s upcoming Bicentennial would be very successful. Additionally, the concept of spending millions of dollars on something that would not earn a dime in returned investment seemed even more frivolous.
In the end, all the financial hurdles were overcome, sponsorships were provided, and the American Freedom Train toured the country in 1975–76 to commemorate the United States Bicentennial. This 26-car train was powered by three newly restored steam locomotives. The first to pull the train was the former Reading Company T-1 class 4-8-4 #2101. The second was the former Southern Pacific 4449, a large 4-8-4 steam locomotive which remains in operating in operating condition today. The third was former Texas & Pacific 2-10-4 #610 which pulled the train in Texas. Due to light rail loadings and track conditions on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad diesels hauled the train from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama. Diesels were also required in Chicago after the steam locomotive derailed attempting to negotiate tracks by the Chicago lakefront.
The train itself consisted of 10 display cars, converted from New York Central and Penn Central baggage cars. They carried more than 500 treasures of Americana, including George Washington’s copy of the Constitution, the original Louisiana Purchase, Judy Garland’s dress from The Wizard of Oz, Joe Frazier’s boxing trunks, Martin Luther King Jr’s pulpit and robes, replicas of Jesse Owens’ four Olympic gold medals from 1936. (one of which was stolen somewhere along the way), a pair of Wilt Chamberlain’s basketball shoes, and a rock from the Moon.
Its tour of all 48 contiguous states lasted from April 1, 1975, until December 31, 1976. More than 7 million Americans visited the train during its tour, while millions more stood trackside to watch it parade past.
The tour began in Wilmington, Delaware, and headed northeast to New England, west through Pennsylvania, Ohio to Michigan, then around Lake Michigan to Illinois and Wisconsin. From the Midwest, the tour continued westward, zigzagging across the plains to Utah and then up to the Pacific Northwest. From Seattle, Washington, the tour then traveled south along the Pacific coast to southern California. The train and crew spent Christmas 1975 in Pomona, California, decorating the locomotive with a large profile of Santa Claus on the front of the smokebox above the front coupler. For 1976, the tour continued from southern California eastward through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, then turned north to visit Kansas and Missouri before traveling through the Gulf Coast states and then north again to Pennsylvania. The tour continued southeast to New Jersey then south along the Atlantic coast before finally ending December 26, 1976, in Miami, Florida. The last visitor went through the train on December 31, 1976.
In early 1977, National Museums of Canada bought 15 of the cars and from 1978 to 1980 toured across Canada as Discovery Train, a mobile museum focusing on that country’s history.
I had the good fortune to be trackside 43 years ago (in 1977) at the horseshoe curve on CSX (former B&O) near a town called Mance, PA (yes, ANOTHER horseshoe curve) on Sand Patch grade. Perfectly timed, as former AFT’s Reading RR 2101 (which was still operating at that time), dragged a heavy excursion train of vintage passenger equipment. She dug in and worked hard uphill westbound, just before entering Sand Patch Tunnel at the crest of the mountain.
With apologies to Phil Spector (creator of the “Wall of Sound” music production formula), I will never forget the “mechanical wall of sound” made by 2101 as it crawled past! (Wish I could find the recording I made of it during its climb….)