Mourners waited for Kennedy train Solemn: Crowds stood by the tracks to see the train that carried Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to his grave.

Way Back When

June 06, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

On a cool and breezy Saturday morning in early June 1968, mourners filled New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral to hear a requiem Mass for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who had been gunned down in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California primary several days earlier.

Not far away, below the main waiting room of Pennsylvania Station, sat a 21-car Penn-Central train on Track 12 that had been made up to convey Kennedy's body and some 1,200 family, friends and reporters to Washington for his burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

A fleet of some 30 buses transported the mourners to the station and after passing through an FBI checkpoint, they descended by escalator to the platform and boarded the train.

The train was drawn by two heavy black GG1 electric locomotives, Nos. 4901 and 4903, and included a baggage car, 14 coaches, three diners, a parlor car and two open-platform private cars.

Kennedy's flag-draped coffin rested on four chairs at window level in the black-draped last car, the Pennsylvania, observation-business car No. 120, whose name had been painted out.

At 1: 04 p.m., 34 minutes late, engineer John F. Flanagan pulled back the engines' throttle and the train began slowly moving out of Penn Station on its solemn 226-mile journey. Along the Northeast Corridor, Americans of every description turned out to bid Kennedy goodbye.

"Once the darkness of the Hudson River tunnels was behind it, the train was never again out of sight of curious and sorrowing onlookers. Lines of vehicles were stopped along the shoulders of every adjacent turnpike, highway and country lane," wrote Bob Withers, author of "The President Travels by Train: Politics and Pullmans" published in 1996.

"The funeral train traveled the 226 miles from New York through an almost unbroken succession of station throngs, urban street crowds and clusters of small-town mourners," wrote Russell Baker in the New York Times.

"In the rural stretches separating the great Eastern cities, girls came to the railroad on horseback. Boys sat in the trees. In a desolate swampy section of New Jersey, a lone man knelt in prayer by the trackside. In the loneliest sections, family groups clustered around cars parked in the woods to hold up flags, to wave, or to salute," he wrote.

"It was so moving to see people who had waited for hours at road crossings waving flags and saluting. It was extraordinary how many people he had touched," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen

Kennedy Townsend the other day from her Annapolis office. "It was extremely sad. These were the people who believed in my father, who had offered them the spirit of hope."

Because of the crowds along the way which reduced the train's speed, it finally reached Baltimore at 7: 30 p.m., four hours behind schedule. Crowds lined the station platform, on the bridges overhead and the trackside embankments.

"Young and old, big and small, black and white, they stood on the platform," reported The Sun.

"And when it finally passed before them at 7: 30 p.m., their eyes were filled with tears. But their voices sang out in a spontaneous tribute.

Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,

Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,

Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,

His truth is marching on.

"On the train, members of the Kennedy family acknowledged the outpouring of feeling with slow, solemn wave. And then it was over. The train had passed. And the crowd of 5,000 filed slowly from the station."

Arriving in Washington five hours late, it was well after 10 p.m. when the funeral procession reached Arlington National Cemetery.

"Under nearly a full moon, Robert Francis Kennedy was laid to rest in a green Arlington hillside tonight near the grave of his late brother," reported The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/06/98

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