When the curtain parted in College Station, Texas, revealing a two-toned blue locomotive standing nearly 16 feet tall and bearing the number 4141 in his honour, former United States president George HW Bush looked around excitedly, his face breaking into a smile. One word left his lips: Wow.
Thirteen years later, that same Union Pacific locomotive will escort the 41st president to his final resting place in College Station on Thursday afternoon after funeral ceremonies in Washington and Houston. The train carrying his remains will leave a Union Pacific Railroad facility in Spring, a community north of Houston, and travel the 70 miles (112km) to College Station. Bush will be buried there, alongside his late wife and daughter, on the site of his presidential library at Texas A&M University.
The locomotive, painted in the same blue colours that adorned Air Force One during Bush’s presidency, was unveiled by the company in October 2005. At the time, Bush was fascinated by the train’s mechanics and asked whether he could take it for a spin, according to Mike Iden, a retired Union Pacific general director of car and locomotive engineering.
After some brief training and under the supervision of an engineer, “the former president operated the locomotive for about two miles,” Iden said. The unveiling stirred memories in Bush of his childhood travels with his family. “We just rode on the railroads all the time, and I’ve never forgotten it,” Bush said.
The remains of Ulysses Grant, James Garfield, William McKinley, Warren Harding and Franklin Roosevelt also took their final journeys by rail.