ABOARD THE 2009 INAUGURAL SPECIAL - They turned out by the thousands along the steel rails yesterday, bundled against the cold, waving American flags, toting digital cameras and homemade signs, sometimes alone, often by twos and tens, occasionally in larger throngs.
Through the icy heart of the Mid-Atlantic, from Philadelphia to Wilmington to Baltimore, they offered hearty waves, broad smiles and best wishes as President-elect Barack Obama's inaugural train rolled past.
A bedsheet on a fence at a bayside park north of Wilmington carried the message "GO-BAMA." "We are praying for you," read a hand-painted sign by the tracks as the train slowed in Edgewood.
Obama rode a vintage train car back to Washington, where he's already been hard at work as a virtual co-president with the outgoing George W. Bush. The scripted symbolism marked the official start of four days and nights of celebrations expected to draw record crowds to the capital.
Accompanied by longtime friends, VIPs and the families of ordinary citizens he encountered on his White House run, the 47-year-old president-elect reprised campaign themes and previewed a message he will likely elaborate upon in his inaugural address.
The country is at a "crossroads," he said, "at war, an economy in turmoil, an American dream that feels like its slipping away." Now, "the time has come to pick ourselves up once again."
Under a leaden sky in Baltimore, where the day's largest audience filled War Memorial Plaza, he largely repeated a line delivered hours earlier in Philadelphia, including words borrowed from Lincoln's first inaugural address.
Americans, he said, need a fresh start, "a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives, our own hearts - from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry and narrow interests - an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels."
It took almost seven hours to complete the roughly 135-mile trip to Washington from Philadelphia, as Obama traced the final leg of Abraham Lincoln's 1861 pre-inaugural journey. At two points along the way, in Delaware and in Maryland, the 11-car train - pulled by engine Nos. 44 and 120, for the soon-to-be 44th president and his inauguration date, Jan. 20 - braked to a previously announced crawl, and Obama emerged on a rear platform to greet well-wishers.
"See you at the next stop," he said, as his wife playfully pulled the whistle cord when the train pulled out of Wilmington for Baltimore.
The journey was carefully orchestrated for security reasons and maximum political impact. A film crew from Obama's campaign captured images from the trip, which will be flashed on giant screens on the national Mall to warm up the audience, figuratively if not literally, before today's opening celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.
At each stop, Obama rarely improvised from prepared remarks read from a prompter device.
"Pray for us," he said in Wilmington, hometown of Joe Biden, where several thousand gathered for a rally outside the train station and the vice president-elect and his wife, Jill, climbed aboard.
At the midday rally, an Amtrak conductor, Gregg Weaver, introduced the veteran Delaware senator, whose decades of daily trips to Washington made him, in Weaver's words, "Amtrak's No. 1 commuter."
The crowd serenaded the incoming first lady, Michelle Obama, with an impromptu chorus of "Happy Birthday" on her 45th birthday. Later, while the train was parked at Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station, she celebrated aboard in a car festooned with birthday banners, dancing with her daughters and other children along for the ride.
In Wilmington, as at every stop along the way, people began arriving hours early, wrapped against biting wind-chill temperatures that reached into the single digits.
Cindy Brown, 75, rode an hour from her house in Sicklerville, N.J., then stood for more than four hours to hear Obama deliver a nine-minute speech.
"I never thought that I would see this day. I thought my grandchildren would see it, but I never did," said Brown, an African-American. "It's worth standing out here in the cold."
The Obamas rode in a vintage platform car at the rear of the train, hitched to modern passenger carriages used on Amtrak's regional line. Daughters Malia and Sasha came along for the ride and appeared at the initial, indoor event, in Philadelphia but were not onstage at the outdoor rallies.
Guests included Bill Daley, the brother of Chicago's mayor and former Clinton Cabinet member, and first friend Eric Whitaker, plus more than 40 family members of ordinary people the president-elect met during his campaign.