In Stetsons and waistcoats, Astros gear and flag-print hoodies, thousands of Texans lined up along the sides of small-town train tracks Thursday to mourn their former president, the home-grown politician with a Texas-sized legacy.
Some waited on the tracks, while others posted up on camping stools and the backs of pick-up trucks, perhaps trading lessons about history or maybe just witnessing it in the making.
It was first time in more than a generation that a presidential funeral train chugged through the American countryside, carrying George H.W. Bush the last 70 miles to College Station to be buried.
Bystanders wept, saluted, cheered and waved, perhaps a similar scene to the one that greeted President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s body on the last presidential funeral train in 1969 – but now with the addition of thousands of smart phones, documenting it all for Facebook and Twitter.
Armed with ponchos and posters, camping tents and coolers, mourners from as far as Arkansas and as close as Spring stood through the drizzle and chill along the route through Hufsmith, Pinehurst, Magnolia, Todd Mission, Stoneham and Navasota.
“I remember thinking he was a great man and we were lucky to have him as a leader,” said Andy Woody, a railroad enthusiast who pulled his children out of school for two days to make a 500-mile trip from Arkansas to the southern part of Montgomery County.
The more than two-hour funeral train pushed off just after 1 p.m. from the Union Pacific Railroad Westfield Auto Facility in Spring following a 1,200-person service at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in west Houston. A gloomy, light gray cloud cover followed the low-speed trek, which topped out around 30 mph.
“The train’s coming here and it’s going to be a happy and sad moment,” said 8-year-old Preston Vaughn, clutching an American flag as he huddled under an umbrella with his mom by the railroad in Old Town Spring.
The 11 cars and two engines – with the iconic Locomotive 4141 leading the way – brought small towns to a standstill.
Police shut down major roadways. Hordes of mourners gathered in the grass. Uniformed deputies lined the streets with their patrol cars, sometimes raising a hand in salute, sometimes placing it over their hearts.
Even passing through sparsely populated areas – or those that appeared uninhabited – the sides of the tracks were rarely empty, with some eager onlookers picking out vantage points amid thick grass or weeds in the hopes of catching a glimpse.
At some points, people got creative. One person flew a drone over the train shortly before Hufsmith. A group of young men rode alongside in an ATV near Tomball.
People stood on piles of woodchips, trucks, land dividers and rooftops. An Apache helicopter flew overhead.
In Brazos County, someone etched “RIP 41” into a hay bale.
Rolling through farms and woods of rural Texas, the bold locomotive stood out with its sleek lines in blue, gray and white intended to evoke Air Force One and, as the railroad put it, the “forward motion representing progress.”
The creation of the specialty engine car, unveiled in 2005 during a ceremony by the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, marked only the sixth time that Union Pacific painted a locomotive in colors other than the traditional UP “Armour Yellow” paint.
Regina Janak woke at 4:30 a.m. to come see it.
Driving all the way from Victoria to College Station, she was among the first to arrive, and planted herself directly next to the train tracks that would hours later carry the former commander-in-chief’s casket.
She said it was “important” to be here, huddled for hours in the rain as she strategized with new friends about how to get the best photo upon the train’s arrival.
Janak’s daughter Taylor, 21, took a break from prepping for finals at Texas A&M, where she studies agriculture. It’s not the first time she’s sacrificed school to witness history: As a kid, she faked sick and – with the help from her mom- cut class to watch the funeral of President Ronald Reagan, a day of hooky that helped kickstart her love for presidents and history.
was the first truly historic event she’d witness in person, though, and
the Janaks came prepared. Nestled under Regina Janak’s raincoat was a
sign that they planned to show to the train.
It was a nod to Bush’s time as a fighter pilot: “Heaven: Where ceiling and visibility are always unlimited.”
Story by Keri Blakinger, Robert Downen, and Jasper Scherer
For full story and pictures please go to houstonchronicle.com
Mayra Cruz, Marialuisa Rincon and Chevall Pryce all contributed to this report.