York Welcomes the Freedom Train
York Welcomes the Freedom Train–that’s the title of the 40 page narrative report written for York’s 1948 Freedom Train Committee by Anna Lynch Morris. The cover above shows the streamlined train that carried precious documents of freedom on a nationwide tour from 1947 to 1949.
York Countians embraced the opportunity with their usual enthusiasm and organization. They even rolled out York’s Liberty Bell for the opening. A special train car filled exclusively with York County history was put together by staff and volunteers of the Historical Society of York and displayed alongside the freedom train. Downtown merchants gave out information on the history of their locations, such as the Bon-Ton, site of Hall & Sellers printing press and Woolworth’s, site of a German Reformed church service attended by George Washington. Schools were involved with displays and programs, including radio broadcasts. The list of activities goes on and on.
See below for my recent York Sunday News column on the October 9, 1948 Freedom Train visit and for more photos of the train and crowd. The photos were taken by Gazette & Daily newspaper photographers that day.
Please share your own memories of that historic visit in the comment section below.
York County and the Freedom Train
Some of you may remember the historic visit of the Freedom Train to York on October 9, 1948. Do you know the story of the Freedom Train and how its journey of 33,000 miles, bringing 127 documents of freedom to 322 sites, came about?
Patriotism was at very high level during World War II, but a year or so after peace was declared, U.S. Attorney General Tom C. Clark was “disturbed by the increase of juvenile delinquency and by the general disregard of this country’s investment in liberty and freedom,” so he called a conference in Washington. From that meeting the “non-political, non-partisan, and non-profit” American Heritage Foundation was formed to bring the priceless papers documenting America’s freedom to its people.
The special Freedom Train would traverse the country from east to west and north to south and back again, starting from Philadelphia on September 17, 1947 and ending in Washington, DC on January 22, 1949.
The Pennsylvania Railroad donated the train cars. The windows were sealed with steel plates, floors and ceilings were of double steel construction, and special vaults were installed. To top off the security, a unit of 27 specially-appointed U.S. Marines would be on guard 24 hours a day. The document exhibit would take up three air-conditioned cars and a document expert would travel with the train to ensure their care.
The American Locomotive and General Electric companies built The Spirit of 76, a streamlined diesel-electric engine decorated in red, white and blue and emblazoned with a golden eagle on each side.
The documents themselves scanned centuries. They included one of four original copies of the Magna Carta; the 1783 Treaty of Paris, officially ending the Revolutionary War; the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, opening the vast western lands for settlement; the Emancipation Proclamation; the Gettysburg Address; the United Nations Charter and the logbook of the USS Missouri from September 2, 1945, the day of the Japanese surrender on the ship. The documents were complemented by a few important artifacts, such as the flag that was raised on Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945.
By mid-1947, national excitement was building in anticipation of the train. York countians, always proud of the leading role York County has played in American history from time to time, started to campaign to get on the Freedom Train schedule. Mrs. Aileen Langston, credited with the idea, was backed by York Mayor John L. Snyder and the Historical Society of York County. York native Robert J. Lewis, then a staff member of the Washington Evening Star, urged Yorkers to start writing letters. On August 25, 1947 Mayor Snyder was notified that the Freedom Train would be coming to York. In June 1948, Snyder’s successor, Felix S. Bentzel, announced the anticipated date–October 9, 1948.
York countians jumped into action. Warren C. Bullete chaired the York County Freedom Train Committee with Mrs. Langston as co-chairman. Twenty-seven subcommittees formed to cover everything from finance to industry to historical scrap books to motion pictures. The York County Agricultural Society granted use of its tracks and location. Pennsylvania Railroad extended the tracks 160 feet at no charge.
Realizing the rich historical resources available locally, Yorkers decided to supplement the display with their own car. The Historical Society of York County quickly gathered more than 65 original documents, a few borrowed, but mostly from their own collection, spanning the past 200 years. They included original York County land grants, a 1741 ticket to purchase a lot of ground in newly laid-out York Town, Continental Currency printed in York in 1778, regulations concerning British prisoners of war employed by York countians in 1782, rosters of York and Hanover volunteers at the 1814 Battle of North Point, minutes of the York town meeting on General Early’s 1863 demands and a photo of York’s four-star WW II General Jacob L. Devers. Western Maryland Railway provided a special car to house the local documents right beside the Freedom Train.
Visitors started to line up two hours before the scheduled opening. Mayor Bentzel, committee members and dignitaries visited the exhibit at 9 a.m. and then presented an opening program. At 10 a.m. York’s Liberty Bell, brought to the fairgrounds from its home at St. John’s Episcopal Church, was struck 13 times. Ten-year-old Donald Zepp, a McKinley School student who was at the head of the line, stepped on the Freedom Train. By the time the exhibit closed 12 hours later, 9,262 people had viewed the displays, with at least 3,500 of them also having visited the HSYC car.
A thousand musicians from 15 bands played to entertain the people standing in the long lines. Eighty boy scouts and 40 girl scouts helped park cars and gave out leaflets. DAR members volunteered as costumed guides for York’s Freedom Car. Many schools and organizations held supplementary activities and created displays throughout the county.
After the train made the last of its 322 stops on January 22, 1949 in Washington, D.C., all the documents from the train were exhibited together for four additional months at the National Archives.
Another Freedom Train crisscrossed the country in 1975-76. That train’s schedule wasn’t as tight, staying two or three days at each spot. Consequently, there were fewer stops, and York missed out. The closest stop was Harrisburg from July 2nd to 5th, 1976, although it did pause for a brief “whistle stop” enroute from Cumberland, Maryland.
Much more information on both Freedom Trains is available online. York County Heritage Trust has files and scrapbooks on the 1948 stop and on York’s special car.