President takes to railroad for final trip home
They stood in the rain for hours, waiting. Ranchers, retirees and cub scouts clutching tiny flags in the cold chill, waiting for a glimpse of the train carrying the casket of President George H.W. Bush through the centre of town.
After the pomp and circumstance of Mr Bush’s memorial service at St Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, his casket was transferred to a windowed car in a train powered by a Union Pacific locomotive painted 4141 — for the 41st president — in his honour.
The train made the 110km journey to College Station, where Mr Bush would be laid to rest at his presidential library, through the wintry farmland of the State he had grown to love.
As president, Mr Bush had vowed to bring his message of hope and growth “to the loneliest town on the quietest street”. Now his train was passing through tiny Texas towns with only a few dozen residents.
“Is it coming,” everybody kept asking, peering down the tracks, where the residents of Navasota — population 8000 — were lined up for blocks under their umbrellas.
Few among them remembered the last time a president’s casket had travelled by funeral train — that was 1969, with Eisenhower — but all were aware they were witnessing history.
“We’re losing the last of the Greatest Generation,” said Shane Werchan, 46. “It really is the end of an era. We will never see a president like him again.”
Mr Bush, who died last week at the age of 94, was born in Massachusetts to a family of wealth.
He was praised in eulogies for his patrician grace and sense of duty and service, which included a career in politics that began in 1966 when he was elected to the House of Representatives and continued as envoy to the United Nations and China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and vicepresident.
But his heart remained with his adopted home state of Texas, where he and his wife Barbara moved in 1948 so he could try his hand at the oil industry. The couple returned to Houston to live after he was defeated for a second term as president in 1992.
Mr Bush had been delighted when Union Pacific unveiled the 4141 locomotive in his honour in 2005, painted blue and white, the colours of Air Force One, and dubbed 4141, a nod to his place in history as the 41st president. Pictures: AP, Washington Post
At the time, Mr Bush said it reminded him of train travels with his family as a young boy, and he even took a turn behind the controls. “We just rode on railroads all the time and I’ve never forgotten it,” he said.
He responded with similar enthusiasm when staff at his presidential library on the campus of Texas A&M University raised the idea of using the locomotive as part of the funeral proceedings, David Jones, chief executive of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation, said.
Sombre funeral train processions have been an integral part of American history for centuries, beginning with Lincoln’s funeral train in 1865, which travelled 2500km.
Mr Bush’s spokesman, Jim McGrath, said the former president had reacted with “typical humility” when briefed in 2011 about his funeral, asking, “Do you think anyone will come?”
Mr Bush was buried at his presidential library in College Station, alongside Barbara and their daughter Robin, who died in 1953.
P113 Letters of grace
Texans pay their respects to George H. W. Bush as the train passes.
The flag-draped casket is carried off the train.
The casket at the burial plot.
A veteran salutes.