The United States has seen two national ‘Freedom Trains’. The 1947–1949 Freedom Train was a special exhibit train that toured the United States in the later half of the 1940s. A similar train called the American Freedom Train toured the country for the United States Bicentennial celebration in 1975–1976. Both trains were painted in special red, white and blue paint schemes, and both toured the 48 contiguous states with displays of Americana and related historical artifacts. The two trains took different routes around the 48 states, but they both stopped for public displays in each of them.
In the early 1970s, Ross Rowland Jr., a young, successful New York commodities broker and occasional steam locomotive engineer, had the idea to celebrate the Bicentennial of the American Revolution with a traveling exhibition of unique and representative artifacts from the 200 year history of the nation.
Ross Rowland and several of his friends and associates from past steam-powered excursion trains worked towards this goal. They knew that the steam locomotive had an immense draw and they recalled the phenomenal success of the exhibit cars included in the Golden Spike Centennial Limited in 1969, powered by Steamtown’s ex-Nickle Plate 2-8-4 Berkshire steam engine #759. The result of their efforts was eleventh-hour corporate sponsorship of a second Freedom Train. By the time the five corporate sponsors signed on, there was barely time to build the train or to find or restore suitable steam locomotion. It almost didn’t happen.
The American Freedom Train toured the country in 1975–1976 to commemorate the United States Bicentennial. This 26-car train was powered by three newly restored steam locomotives. The first to pull the train was former Reading Company 4-8-4 #2101. The second was former Southern Pacific 4449, a large 4-8-4 steam locomotive that is still operating in special excursion service today. The third was former Texas & Pacific 2-10-4 #610, which pulled the train in Texas. Due to light rail loadings and track conditions on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, diesels hauled the train from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama.
Within the train’s 10 display cars, converted from New York Central and Penn Central baggage cars, were over 500 precious treasures of Americana. Included in these diverse artifacts were George Washington’s copy of the Constitution, the original Louisiana Purchase, Judy Garland’s dress from The Wizard of Oz, Joe Frazier’s boxing trunks, Martin Luther King’s pulpit and robes, replicas of Jesse Owens’ four Olympic gold medals from 1936 (one of which was stolen somewhere along the way), and even a rock from the moon. In addition to the 10 display cars, where people could walk among the treasures of our nation, there were two showcase cars that held large objects meant to be viewed through the windows of the cars.
Over a 21-month period from April 1, 1975 to December 31, 1976 more than 7 million Americans visited the train during its tour of all 48 contiguous states. Millions more stood trackside to see it go by.
The train’s tour began April 1, 1975, in Wilmington, Delaware. The train then traveled northeast to New England, west through Pennsylvania, Ohio to Michigan, then around Lake Michigan to Illinois and Wisconsin. From the Midwest, the tour continued westward, zigzagging across the plains to Utah and then up to the Pacific Northwest. From Seattle, Washington, the tour then traveled south along the Pacific coast to southern California. The train and crew spent Christmas 1975 in Pomona, California, decorating the locomotive with a large profile of Santa Claus on the front of the smokebox above the front coupler. For 1976, the tour continued from southern California eastward through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, then turned north to visit Kansas and Missouri before traveling through the Gulf Coast states and then north again to Pennsylvania. The tour continued southeast to New Jersey then south along the Atlantic coast before finally ending December 26, 1976 in Miami, Florida. The last visitor went through the train December 31, 1976.