Perhaps it is just an illusion, but there seems something particularly American about trains. Their creation was essential to the development of the nation; both the growth of cities and the settlement of the west would have taken immensely longer without them. Along with conquering great distances they gave freedom of movement of a type that humanity had never known before.
So it seemed to make sense that twice in the 20th century, Americans took some of their most precious national icons, like George Washington’s personal copy of the Constitution and others less august, like Judy Garland’s dress from the “Wizard of Oz,” and sent them hurtling around the country on what were called Freedom Trains. And both Freedom Trains stopped in the Lehigh Valley.
The first Freedom Train came down the tracks from 1947 to 1949. The Cold War was just beginning its deep freeze phase. A select group of U.S. Marines were used to act as guides to guard the train and its treasures that included the American flag that was flown over Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi in 1945 during World War II.
On November 19, 1947 the Freedom Train arrived in Allentown for 12 hours and a crowd estimated at 8,000 toured her. It was pulled by a diesel engine, then still something of a novelty. Donald Hock, Allentown’s mayor-elect, was deeply moved.
“My visit to the Freedom Train made me realize anew how fortunate we Americans are that back then we were blessed with men of courage, men of vision and men of faith,” Hock said. “Now in this uneasy age, it is our turn --- we must not fail.”
For those who might have missed the Freedom Train the first time, they could have caught it again on October 11, 1948 by going to Easton. A crowd estimated at 15,000 visited it that day. It would be 28 years—1976-- before the second Freedom Train would arrive in the Lehigh Valley, and this time it would pay a visit to Bethlehem.
On August 13th, 1976, the Morning Call wrote its first article about the Bicentennial Freedom Train’s visit. The project, it noted, was begun in 1973 by Ross Rowland, a wealthy 35-year-old commodities broker and railroad buff.
The project was purely a private one, the funding coming from major American corporations.
Three engines would eventually pull the Freedom Train in 1975 -76. The version seen in Bethlehem had originally been built for the Reading Railroad. It was used because another larger engine built for the Southern Pacific was too tall for the lower tunnel and bridge clearances of the East.
The article noted that originally Bethlehem had only been put on the list of alternate stops. But the organizers of the city’s Americana ‘76 Fair re-arranged the fair’s schedule to make a visit more likely. A Freedom Train official took a look at the site under the Hill-to Hill Bridge and was so impressed that he gave it immediate approval in early June.
The Freedom Train was in Bethlehem from August 27 to 29, 1976. The keynote speaker for the Freedom Train on its arrival would be Deming Lewis, Lehigh University’s president.
The half-mile-long Freedom Train eased into Bethlehem on August 27th at 8 a.m. from New Brunswick N. J. The front of the engine bore a plaque that read “AMERICAN FREEDOM TRAIN” between two American flags. A large number 1 was in its center with a shiny bell above.
The newspaper’s article the next day, under the headline “FREEDOM TRAIN --IT’S PEOPLE-POWERED,” offered some interesting statistics.
Of the train’s 130-person crew, almost all were age 22 or younger. Twenty five of them slept aboard the train and the others went to local hotels or motels for the night. “So far 5.5 million people have gone through the Americana exhibit which has reached its 108th city---Bethlehem,” the paper noted. “When the journey ends,” it said “150 cities will have been visited.”
The staff on the train recalled the most popular and at the same time controversial part of the exhibit was in Car 10 and called “Conflict and Resolution” about the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. “I’ve seem them come off Car No.10 crying. And I’ve seen others spitting on the same display,” a Freedom Train staffer told the Call.
The next day local officialdom gathered to welcome the Freedom Train with speeches. Among those taking part were Bethlehem mayor Gordon Mowrer, Congressman Fred Rooney and Lehigh University’s Lewis. Lewis noted the Freedom Train represented the ideal of public education as advocated by Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers.
Then at 6 p.m. the train opened for visitors. It was estimated that over 5,700 came through before it closed 4 hours later. The next day was an even bigger success. All told an estimated 38, 869 Americana 76’ Fairgoers visited the train in Bethlehem. “We had very, very good success and it was due mostly to the hosts and the excellent site we had for the train,” said Freedom Train spokesman John Lodge.
It was 2 a.m.on August 30th that the Freedom Train pulled out of Bethlehem headed for its next stop at Trenton. New Jersey.
Although the 1976 Freedom Train ended with the Bicentennial, those connected with it live on. Ross Rowland is still at it, currently working on restoring a luxury steam train to the Greenbrier Resort. The Reading engine that pulled her to Bethlehem is now on display at the B&O railroad museum in Baltimore.
And on a Freedom Train website near a large photo of the train in Bethlehem, one man, identified only as Charlie O, posted this in 2007: “Thanks for the memories. Somewhere in that crowd are myself (age14), my parents and my grandparents.”