Step Aboard FDR's Presidential Train

The retired Ferdinand Magellan in 1983.  National Park Service  photo

The retired Ferdinand Magellan in 1983. National Park Service photo

During World War II the White House purchased a luxury Pullman rail car named the Ferdinand Magellan and transformed it into a rolling fortress codenamed U.S. Car Number 1. Franklin Roosevelt used this Air Force One predecessor on countless cross-country trips during the war. 

The Ferdinand Magellan had 5/8 inch thick nickel-steel armor and three-inch thick bullet resistant windows. The rear door alone tipped the scales at 1,500 pounds (though this inconvenience was minimized by carefully balanced hinges). In total, the car weighed 142 tons - almost double the weight of the standard 80 ton Pullman car. By way of comparison, a modern M1 Abrams tank weighs 62 tons.

Ferdinand Magellan in 1942.  National Park Service  photo

Ferdinand Magellan in 1942. National Park Service photo

The Magellan traveled with a fleet that included sleeping and office cars for White House staff, an Army medical car, and a communications car nicknamed “the crate”. The Presidential Limousine and Secret Service Cadillacs were brought along in a special garage car. Two locomotives were often required to drag this ensemble up steeper track grades. 

The interior of the Magellan contained a Presidential Suite (two separate bedrooms for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt), two guest rooms, a conference room and an observation lounge. The rear platform was wired with a microphone and loudspeakers that came in handy during whistle-stop campaign speeches.  

Cross-country trips on the Presidential train were a complex logistical undertaking. Robert Klara’s history of the U.S. Car Number 1 details the security precautions:

The railroad’s police would begin taking up posts at overpasses and junctions. Plainclothesmen would appear at stations along the route, peering over broadsheets and watching for anyone who struck them as suspicious. Track gangs would begin a slow, watchful trek by foot down every mile of track that the president’s train would travel, checking for broken rails and locking switches as they went. 

Observation lounge.  Association of American Railroads  photo

Observation lounge. Association of American Railroads photo

The Magellan enjoyed first right of way wherever it traveled, and railroad companies kept other traffic at least 30 minutes ahead or behind the president. 

FDR traveled 50,000 miles on the presidential train during his 12-year presidency, and when he died in 1945 the Magellan carried his body from Washington to Hyde Park. 

President Truman also made frequent use of the train, and he often urged the engineers to push it up to speeds of 80 miles per hour. (FDR had preferred a languid 30 mph pace that didn't jostle his wheelchair.) In 1948 Truman traveled across the country on the Magellan as a part of his whistle-stop reelection tour, and the famous Dewey Beats Truman photograph was taken on the back platform.

That was the highwater mark for the Ferdinand Magellan. President Eisenhower preferred to travel on Air Force One and rarely used the train. It was last officially used by Mamie Eisenhower, and in 1958 it was declared surplus. The White House mothballed the train at an army base in Maryland and offered it to the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian failed to act quickly (they claimed that there wasn't any space), and in 1959 the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami was able to purchase it.