I guess I blew it on the latest quiz… so I’ll offer the answer anyway — the 1975-1976 American Freedom Train. More specifically, the first of three steam locomotives that pulled the train during the two years that it crisscrossed the lower 48 states during the American Bicentennial Celebration of 1976 — this locomotive being the former Reading Company 4-8-4 #2101.
I heard about it months in advance on the radio, but didn’t expect that I’d actually get to see it since we were living in Hagerstown, Maryland at the time and we weren’t on the published list of scheduled stops.
Very early on a clear day in early July of 1976, while I was making my rounds door-to-door delivering the Morning Herald newspaper, I stood rooted in place by the haunting sound of a distant steam train whistle, a sound I didn’t recall ever hearing before. My dad had described it so perfectly from his own youth that I immediately recognized it for what it was and stayed standing there as the whistle came closer and closer. I waited as the train finally came into sight about a half mile away, and watched as it slowly decelerated and made its way into Hagerstown, where it made a brief stop for water before continuing on its way to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
I discovered earlier today that I still have newspaper clippings from that early visit, and reread how officials with the train were so impressed that a 1,000 locals had turned out without any advertising — people had simply followed the siren song of the steam whistle — that they decided to come back for a three-day visit later in mid-September, which is when I got to go aboard myself. I also found an old official commemorative program from the event, signed by none other than himself, the chief architect of the event and one of the engineers of the locomotive. Jr.
Long after the American Freedom Train had faded into the past, I still thought about it and wondered what had happened — whether it was around and what shape it was in. My dad and I spotted it about a decade ago, but none of my photos turned out from that visit (the pre-digital-era film turned out to be grossly over exposed). We spotted it again this past Friday, over at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, sitting forlorn, neglected, and forgotten on a side-track and beginning to attract graffiti taggers.
So if you’re into history, and like trains, be sure to stop by and pay your respects to her. I’m sure she would be grateful for the company.