Inside the heavily-armored presidential train, which leaders from FDR to Reagan used to criss-cross the country, campaigning in style and luxury

train Reagan

  • Even before the age of rapid, easy air travel, presidents still needed to get around the country as quickly as possible.
  • Train was the fastest, simplest alternative, and so a special presidential locomotive was employed.
  • The Ferdinand Magellan was specially redesigned for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1942, with engineers reinforcing it with armor to protect him against assassination attempts, and ensuring the wheelchair-bound president was able to freely move around.
  • Roosevelt was the first of four presidents to embark on whistle-stop tours of the US on the train.
  • President Harry S Truman's surprise victory in the 1948 presidential election was largely credited to his decision to embark on an epic four month whistle-stop campaign tour - taking his plain-spoken style to towns across the US.
  • The train was taken out of retirement by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, who on his Heartlands tour consciously mimicked Truman, delivering speeches to supporters in packed train stations from the back of the car.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

These days when the president of the United States wants to get around they will use their fleet of high-tech cars, planes or helicopters.

But there was a time when the best way for Americans to get around was on the huge network of railways that covered the US - and the president was no different.

Though presidents had travelled the country by rail since the 19th century, it wasn't until 1942 that they got their own specially designed railway engine: The Ferdinand Magellan.

This is its story.

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A specially redesigned luxury armored train for presidents to travel in style and safety.

A specially redesigned luxury armored train for presidents to travel in style and safety.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had travelled across the depression-ravaged US on trains to pitch his 'New Deal' to voters in the 1930s.

But with World War II raging, his security team in 1942 decided that he needed a specially designed car to defend his security.

They commissioned famed train maker Pullman to redesign for the president's exclusive use one of the six private carriages it had available, all named after famous explorers.

The Ferdinand Magellan after the redesign was also known as US Car No 1.

It was encased in layers of half-inch thick nickel plated armor, and bullet-proof windows. Its undercarriage was strengthened, in case would-be assassins planted bombs on the rail track.

With Roosevelt disabled by polio, it was also redesigned to allow him to access all parts of the carriage in his wheelchair.

There were also two secret escape hatches, through which the president could be hauled in case of an emergency.

The redesign doubled its weight to 285,000 pounds — heavier than a tank.

Source: White House Historical Association

Roosevelt delivered speeches to ordinary Americans from the train, which was also fitted out in luxury for VIP guests.

Roosevelt delivered speeches to ordinary Americans from the train, which was also fitted out in luxury for VIP guests.

The train had a large room which could be used as a dining or conference room, an observation lounge and four bedrooms. It also had separate rooms for the president and first lady and two guest bedrooms.

Roosevelt was very fond of the train, using it for private trips to visit friends and family as well as for hosting foreign leaders.

Among the guests hosted on the train was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Roosevelt used the train on gruelling whistle-stop tours while campaigning in 1944 to become the only president to be elected to four terms in office.

At the back of the car was a rear platform that could be fitted with microphones so the president could address voters in towns throughout the US without needing to leave the comfort of the carriage.

Source: The White House Historical Association

The Ferdinand Magellan was the scene of one of the most famous photographs in presidential history.

The Ferdinand Magellan was the scene of one of the most famous photographs in presidential history.

FDR died in office only a year after his successful re-election.

His successor, Harry Truman, wasn't as fond of the train as Roosevelt, but like him saw it as a vital campaigning tool.

His shock election victory in 1948 is largely credited to his decision to embark on an epic tour of the US between June and November in election year.

The political elite had written off his chances, but ordinary Americans warmed to the direct and plain-spoken approach he took — conveyed in speeches in hundreds of towns from the back of the Ferdinand Magellan.

The moment of his stunning victory is best conveyed in an iconic photo, in which a grinning Truman can be seen standing on the back of the Ferdinand Magellan holding aloft a copy of the Chicago Tribune.

The paper had erroneously called the election for his rival, Thomas E Dewey, before the real result became known, in one of the most famous moments in US electoral history.

Source: New York Times

Truman's successor, Dwight Eisenhower preferred planes, so the train was taken out of official service.

Truman's successor, Dwight Eisenhower preferred planes, so the train was taken out of official service.

President Dwight D Eisenhower wasn't a fan of the cumbersome armored train, preferring to get around by plane.

The last official trip of the Ferdinand Magellan was in 1954, when Eisenhower's wife, Mamie, used the train on an official trip to Canada.

Afterwards, the train spend several decades in the Gold Coast Railway Museum in Florida.

But decades later, under President Ronald Reagan, it made a comeback.

But decades later, under President Ronald Reagan, it made a comeback.

When campaigning for re-election in 1984, President Ronald Reagan decided he wanted to recreate Truman's epic whistle-stop tour of 1948, and brought the Ferdinand Magellan out of retirement.

Just like his predecessors in the office, Reagan delivered speeches from the back of the train to voters in small towns.

He took the same route Truman had taken — but on a much reduced scale, campaigning for only one day on board.

Nonetheless he attracted tens of thousands of supporters and people keen to see the famed old train car on the tracks again. Reagan warmed to the occasion.

"The campaign rallies themselves were classic Reagan," reported the Christian Science Monitor at the time.

"Amid the trappings of banners, bunting, and high school bands, and with jubilant partisan supporters cheering him on, the President gave the same stump speech at each stop - evoking the memory of Harry Truman, smoothly playing on the doubts of Democrats, flaying the ''malaise'' of the Carter administration, and attacking [Democratic opponent] Walter Mondale more forcefully than at any time since the beginning of the campaign."

The train was designated a National Historic Landmark after its brief comeback.

The train was designated a National Historic Landmark after its brief comeback.

For a day, Reagan evoked the railway tours of the past, where presidents delivered their message directly to voters in small towns far from Washington DC, without having to rely on the mass media or in more recent years social media to get their message out.

The US government afterwards recognized the unique historic role of the Ferdinand Magellan, granting it special protected status.

After the final tour it was returned to the Gold Coast museum in Florida, where it is still exhibited to this day.

Source: Gold Coast Railroad Museum


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