About the most famous passenger car in the U.S.: Ferdinand Magellan

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Saturday, January 20, 2018

What would you say is the most famous passenger car in the United States? The well-traveled PV Caritas? Lucius Beebe’s office car Virginia City. Amtrak office car 10,000?

It’s a debatable list, and one that would have to include in its top 10 an office car that I have heard about all my life and visited for the first time recently while on business in Florida: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s office car Ferdinand Magellan. This classic heavyweight Pullman makes its home at the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami. This car may top the list of all cars, having also carried Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. In the days before Air Force 1 this was how the president traveled the country.

The car is typical in that it features a kitchen, staterooms, and a dining room. It was one of six in the explorers’ series. But it is unusual because of its security and safety features that were put in place to carry the president. These additions include armor plating, extra thick windows, an escape door on the side, a 1,500-pound back platform door that would rival any bank vault door, and a submarine hatch in the observation room ceiling that would be used only to extract the occupants if the car were ever turned over and on its side. Bob Withers excellent book, “The President Travels by Train,” says the car was among the heaviest passenger cars ever once it was armored. It weighs 142 tons, vs. 80 tons for a typical car like it.

Withers also points out that Roosevelt traveled by train more than any other president, 243,827 miles, much of it on the Magellan, on 399 trips. He also points out that the Association of American Railroads purchased the car from Pullman. Can you imagine the howls that would result today of Boeing offered to build a new Air Force 1 for the president and the price tag was gratis?

To me, the interior is what I would expect it to be. It’s the back platform that is the story on this car. It’s the platform, where FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and in 1984 on a campaign trip, Ronald Reagan, spoke on whistle-stop tours in the finest tradition of American politics. That was in an age when the country’s CEO went to the people to speak and when tweeting was still something birds did. Today, the microphones are still there as are the loudspeakers on top of the car. It is a car that looks like it is ready for a president to step out onto the back platform, acknowledge the crowd, and give a rousing speech. “Give ‘em hell, right?” Yes, I can see it. This is where Truman held up that copy of the Chicago Tribune that proclaimed “Dewey defeats Truman.” It is sacred ground in American 20th century history.

The back platform is closed when visitors tour the Gold Coast Railroad Museum. That is too bad. Wouldn't it be great if it were open so that every citizen who visits could stand on the platform in front of the mics and feel the urge to launch into a speech with these words, “My fellow Americans…”? The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville lets visitors stand on the stage at the Ryman Auditorium and hold a guitar. I’d love to see the back platform of the Magellan opened up. It would surely be an inspirational moment for anyone who would choose to stand there.  

So, next time you are way south, visit this National Historic Landmark, an amazing part of American history. You’ll feel the same urge I did to stand on that back platform. It’s only natural. 

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