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Farewell to 'Ike'

Gary Dolzall

November 19th, 2020

Along with millions of others, a young railfan pays his respects and bids farewell to Dwight David Eisenhower.

Words and Photographs by Gary Dolzall

Dwight David Eisenhower: Thirty-Fourth President of the United States, first Supreme Commander of NATO, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. And to an admiring world, simply “Ike.”

Dwight Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas, on October 14, 1890, the son of a Missouri-Kansas-Texas (Katy) Railroad mechanical department employee. Born near the Katy’s tracks, Ike once said the railroad engineer was his boyhood idol. But history and fate, of course, had much grander plans for this extraordinary man.

Eisenhower’s remarkable life closed on March 28, 1969, when his troublesome heart finally could endure no longer. He was 78. Ike had left specific instructions for his funeral and burial, including the use of a standard $80 G.I. issue casket which was to be transported, in a common baggage car aboard a funeral train, for his burial at his boyhood home of Abilene, Kansas.

Following services in Washington, D.C., Eisenhower’s funeral train was scheduled to depart the nation’s Capital at 6 p.m. on March 31 for a 35-hour, 1,389-mile solemn journey across eight states. In a nod to Ike’s desire for simplicity and, perhaps, recalling the trackside tragedy that had attended the funeral train of Senator Robert F. Kennedy the prior year, the family requested that the schedule and route of the train not to be made public and that no stops (other than for servicing) be scheduled.

But the love of Dwight Eisenhower by America would not be so easily denied.

Quickly, word of the train’s route and approximate schedule made its way from person to person, town to town, state to state. By the time the funeral train reached Charlottesville, Virginia, only three hours after its departure, 3,000 people awaited at trackside. And such would be the case in community after community, as anywhere from hundreds to thousands stood trackside to pay their respects.

In 1969 I was in my early teens growing up in southern Indiana, already with a love for both history and railroading. A look at my railroad atlas suggested the funeral train might well be making its way west via Baltimore & Ohio’s line to St. Louis, which passed through Mitchell, Indiana, 33 miles south of my home. At Mitchell, the B&O crossed my beloved Monon Railroad and I had made friends with the Monon agent at Mitchell. Thus, a phone call to the Monon depot confirmed that the funeral train would indeed pass through Mitchell in the early afternoon of April 1. And so, with my father in our Mercury station wagon, the trip was made to Mitchell that somber, gray day. As in towns across America, word had been passed and scores of citizens assembled trackside at the B&O station to await the train.

In mid-afternoon, an oscillating headlight appeared to the east and shortly, a pilot train, led by Chesapeake & Ohio E8 4026, eased past Mitchell’s stone depot, alerting us that the funeral train was approaching. Minutes later, as the sky brightened a bit and with a trio of B&O E8s on the point, the ten-car Eisenhower funeral train arrived as all those waiting at trackside stood in hushed respect. As the train slowly passed, all eyes, many tear-filled, turned toward C&O baggage car 314, draped in black bunting and affixed with an American flag.

Following its passage through Mitchell, the train journeyed into the night, where no matter what the hour, thousands awaited it. The Eisenhower funeral train would reach Abilene at 6:56 a.m. on April 2, having made its way from Washington, D.C., to Kansas via the Chesapeake & Ohio, Baltimore & Ohio, Norfolk & Western, and Union Pacific railroads. In Abilene, upwards of 100,000 people came to pay homage. The great soldier and statesman had come home. – Gary Dolzall

GD1101 The arrival of the pilot train, with Chesapeake & Ohio E8 4026 in the lead, alerted all those who were waiting trackside at Michell, Indiana, on the afternoon of April 1, 1969, that the funeral train of Dwight David Eisenhower was soon to follow.

GD1102 In a scene that occurred in hundreds of cities and towns across eight states and during a journey of 1,389 miles, scores of citizens stand hushed along the platform of Mitchell’s B&O station to pay their respects as the funeral train of “Ike” slowly passes.

GD1103 As the funeral train rolled past, all eyes turned toward C&O baggage car 314, draped in black bunting and affixed with an American flag. The baggage car is today preserved at the B&O Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Dwight David Eisenhower’s extraordinary life had many connections to railroading, and it was by his choice that his final trip home was on the rails.

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