Fateful destination: the last stop for FDR’s funeral train

Posted by Kevin P. Keefe
on Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Posted by Kevin P. Keefe, publisher

Our books editor at Trains, Angela Pusztai-Pasternak, knows I love new railroad history titles, especially if they tell a story that transcends railroading. She wasn’t surprised, then, when I snatched up “FDR’s Funeral Train” by Robert Klara (Palgrave Macillan, $27). It’s a riveting tale of how several railroads brought Franklin D. Roosevelt’s body home to Hyde Park, N.Y., on April 15, 1945. Railroad books rarely are true page-turners, but this one is, compressing three historic days into a brisk narrative complete with a grieving First Lady, distraught over more than just the obvious; new President Harry Truman, thrust into frightening new responsibilities; and a trainload of conniving politicians, overworked reporters, and even a Soviet spy. Not incidentally, the book is also a tribute to valorous performances by the Southern Railway, Pennsylvania Railroad, and New York Central. My review appears in the July 2010 issue of Trains (page 66).

I thought my involvement with the book was finished in early April when I remembered I’d be going to Hyde Park a couple of weeks later. My daughter goes to school in FDR’s hometown, and visits to his home and library — a National Historic Site — have become routine. This time, I thought I’d try to find the private-car siding where FDR’s funeral train tied up on that somber morning.

As described in Klara’s book, the arrival of the train was chaotic. Planning had been done in a hurry, and the NYC had to build a special wooden platform to unload the president’s coffin from the business car Conneaut. As all the distinguished visitors disembarked from the 18-car train, many scrambled to find an automobile with enough room. Even Harry Truman had to settle for a taxicab. Then they all sped up the hill for the brief burial ceremony on FDR’s Springwood estate.

The FDR site is a fabulous place to visit. But neither the exhibits nor the National Park Service handouts or maps say much about the funeral train. When I asked a park service ranger about the siding, he just said it wasn’t preserved. Thanks to Klara’s book, I knew its location. So off I went, hiking down a long road that winds through the woods to the Hudson River. At the bottom, I came to a fork in the lane, with one road leading back up into the woods, the other turning westward for 50 feet or so before becoming submerged in a marsh. This second fork seemed like the road the funeral party took, but it’s impassable, so I hiked up and over a wooded bluff before clambering down to trackside over tree trunks and huge rocks. Catching my breath at trackside, I decided I’d probably done a dumb thing. The steep hillside was pushing the limit of my 59-year-old knees.

But I was happy to be there. The gleaming double-track CSX main line recalled the majestic New York Central, and the river beyond conjured images of Ed Nowak publicity pictures. Best of all, I could see traces of the old siding, which paralleled the main line for a few hundred yards from the south before it reached a dead end. I could still see NYC ballast down in the weeds, and I could imagine how difficult it was to squeeze a cortege of automobiles between a train and a marsh. The place was peaceful, just as it must have been when FDR’s funeral train departed later that day in 1945.

The park rangers would have been less than pleased to know I had found the siding, given how far I’d gone off the sanctioned trails. If you visit the FDR site, proceed accordingly. But having read Klara’s wonderful account of a momentous day along the NYC, I’m glad I did it.

FDR funeral train 

















Roosevelt’s funeral train at Cold Spring, N.Y., just a few miles from his estate, on April 15, 1945. New York Central photo by Ed Nowak

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