The Freedom Train
The Freedom Train was a seven-car train that traveled across the United States from September 1947 until January 1949.
It was dedicated to the history of American democracy and contained some of the country's most priceless historical documents.
The idea of the Freedom Train was to allow all Americans—from all over the country—the opportunity to view these important documents and learn more about our nation and its history.
The Freedom Train was extremely popular—more than 3.5 million Americans came to view the documents it held.
Creating the Freedom Train
Attorney General Tom C. Clark was the biggest proponent of the idea of the Freedom Train. Clark announced the Freedom Train on April 11, 1947, stating that its primary purpose would be to “reawaken in the American people, the loyalty it is known they have for the American way of life."
The Freedom Train had two goals: to recreate an awareness of American heritage and to generate interest in safeguarding and preserving key American documents.
Originally, Clark planned for the Freedom Train to be funded by Congress. He was unable to secure appropriated funds for the project, however, and the American Heritage Foundation was created to lead the Freedom Train project.
The funding was collected through private donations from organizations, corporations, and individuals.
The Cars of the Freedom Train
The Freedom Train was a seven-car train built and designed with the help of major railroad companies. The Pennsylvania Railroad contributed the three exhibition cars. The Pullman Company lent three cars for the train's personnel. The Santa Fe Railroad Company donated the equipment car for holding baggage.
The American Locomotive Company and General Electric Company provided a 2,000-horsepower diesel-electric locomotive.
The train was constructed at the Wilmington shops of the Pennsylvania Railroad under the supervision of Stanley G. Somers, the War Department Director of Exhibits.
Freedom Train Staff
A variety of staff from different agencies kept the Freedom Train running. Some workers were there to help run the train; others were there to protect what the train was carrying.
Staff worked nonstop, only taking a few days off to spend the holidays with their families.
The United States Marine Corps accepted the assignment of guarding the train and its contents. They provided 24 enlisted men and 3 officers to stand guard 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The Marine Guards were handpicked according to their intelligence, combat qualities, and height.
For the train to journey across the nation, 52 railroads agreed to allow the train on their tracks. The railroads also guaranteed space for mechanical inspections.
The Association of American Railroads developed the train’s route and designated it as Presidential Priority, meaning that it was given the right-of-way on every track.
These special privileges allowed the Freedom Train to travel to over 300 cities in all 48 states in a short amount of time.
The Freedom Train also carried its own maintenance crew. The Pullman Company provided three Pullman porters to keep the passenger cars in good shape. The American Locomotive and General Electric Company provided three diesel and locomotive experts.
The Freedom Train ran on a strict and grueling schedule and could not be delayed by mechanical failures. These men thoroughly inspected the train three times a month and performed routine maintenance in order to keep everything operating smoothly.
Delmar F. Robb
The most important person traveling with the Freedom Train was Delmar F. Robb. Robb was a curator with the National Archives tasked with monitoring and caring for the documents and their cases.
To do this, he took hourly readings of the temperature and humidity within the cases, adjusting them as needed. His goal was to keep the temperature at 75 degrees Fahrenheit or higher and keep the humidity levels between 40 and 60 percent.
On days that the Freedom Train was under scheduled maintenance, Robb cleaned the document cases. He also wrote weekly reports to Archivist of the United States Wayne C. Grover and Arthur E. Kimberly, Chief of the Division of Cleaning and Rehabilitation in Washington, DC.
To choose the documents for the Freedom Train, the American Heritage Foundation created the Documentary Advisory Committee. The committee would select “those documents which would best stand the test of universal acceptance by the American people.”
The 127 documents they selected were all historically—and monetarily—valuable and had to be insured. Below are the insured values of a few of our nation's most prized possessions.
Crucial to acquiring documents for the Freedom Train was Elizabeth Hamer, Chief of the Division of Exhibits and Publications at the National Archives. Most of the Freedom Train’s documents were loaned from the National Archives, but others came from the Library of Congress, independent museums, and private collections.
Elizabeth Hamer negotiated with these groups to incorporate their documents into the Freedom Train exhibition. She also helped design the document displays and install them in the exhibit.
In total, 133 items (127 documents and 6 flags) were selected for display on the Freedom Train. All the documents were either originals or official copies. They ranged from Columbus’s first letter about discovering America to the United Nations Charter.
The documents were arranged through the cars in chronological order. The most famous and important documents were prominently placed so as to be visible to all visitors.
The train's cars underwent extensive renovations to prepare them for the exhibit. Every detail ensured that the documents would be safe. The exhibit cars had no windows to prevent daylight from damaging the documents. The paint used throughout the train was flame resistant.
The exterior of the entire train was painted white with a red and blue stripe across the length of the train. Each train car also sported an eagle painted in gold.
Inside the Freedom Train
Inside the cars, workers had removed the seats to make room for the custom-built display cases. Each case was designed to provide the documents with as much protection and visibility as possible. Temperature and humidity regulation systems ensured proper conditions for the documents.
The National Archives developed strict construction requirements for the cases. Arthur E. Kimberly, Chief of the Division of Cleaning and Rehabilitation, wrote a three-page list of potential threats. This attention to detail was necessary in order to ensure that the documents would not be stolen, faded, or damaged in any way while on display.
The Freedom Train Tour Begins
The Freedom Train Tour officially started its journey in Philadelphia, PA, on September 17, 1947—the 160th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution.
The train headed east toward New York City before turning north through New England. The Freedom Train arrived in Washington, DC, on November 27, 1947.
President Harry S.Truman and his cabinet visited the Freedom Train while it was in Washington. Truman spoke highly of the visit saying, “I sincerely wish that every person in this country, and in every country, for that matter, could see those documents and appreciate just what they stand for—freedom of the individual and liberty to live as that individual sees fit, as long as he lives in harmony with his neighbors.”
More than 3.5 million visitors walked through the Freedom Train.
Crowds of people of every race, age, and economic level—from big cities to small towns—came to see the Freedom Train.
Segregation and the Freedom Train
From Washington, DC, the Freedom Train headed to the South, where segregation caused some problems.
Before the tour started, the American Heritage Foundation had stated, “If any city scheduled to be visited [had] rules that whites and blacks will not be permitted in the same car at the same time, then the Freedom Train will not stop there.”
Memphis, Tennessee, however, was not willing to abandon its segregation practices. True to the Foundation's word, the Freedom Train did not stop in Memphis as planned and instead spent an extra day in New Orleans.
The same was true for Birmingham, Alabama. When city officials revealed plans to have separate viewings for black and white residents, the American Heritage Foundation canceled the stop.
Memphis and Birmingham were the only two scheduled stops that were bypassed because of segregation.
After traveling through the southern states, the Freedom Train headed west. The train ran across the lower half of the nation to California before proceeding back east through the northern half. The train spent a few weeks in Maryland being cleaned up before returning to Washington, DC, for President Harry Truman's Inauguration Week festivities in January.
On the last day of the celebration, Truman was presented with scrolls containing signatures of the 3.5 million people who signed the Freedom Pledge aboard the train. Each scroll was 20 inches long, 8 inches in diameter, and contained about 10,000 names. All of the scrolls went to the Library of Congress.
Dismantling the Freedom Train
The Freedom Train's tour officially ended at the end of Inauguration Week. On January 24, 1949, the National Archives removed the precious documents. The 80 steel display cases from the Freedom Train were presented to the National Archives and used to show many historical treasures. The train cars were renovated back into passenger cars and returned to their respective parent companies.
Attempt to Extend Operation Again
A month after the end of the Freedom Train’s tour, Congress drafted legislation to put the train back in operation. The bill authorized $2 million to operate the train until July 5, 1951. According to the bill, the Archivist of the United States would direct the operation of the train with the help of a committee composed of members of Congress, Federal officials, and five other people appointed by the President.
Unfortunately, this new legislation was not enough to keep the train running. Archives officials urged Congress to grant more funds for the operation of the Freedom Train, but their requests were denied, and the train tour was not resumed.
National Archives Exhibit Opens
In lieu of an extended national tour, the American Heritage Foundation and the National Archives created a museum exhibit about the Freedom Train.
The one-year exhibit opened on September 17, 1949, at the National Archives and displayed many of the documents that traveled on the train.
The exhibit attracted many people to the National Archives, both those who had already seen the documents on the Freedom Train and those who were seeing these documents for the first time.
Curator — Alex Nieuwsma
Curator — Emma Rothberg
Contributor — Tom Ryan
Contributor — Caroline Rahmlowe
Project Manager — Jessie Kratz
Editor — Mary Ryan
Special Thanks to — Alan Walker