by Malcolm Campbell
President Warren G. Harding traveled west by rail out of Washington, D. C. aboard the Pullman Private Car Superb in June 1923, to revitalize both his health and his rapport with the American people. He failed the first objective and briefly met the second. Dying of a heart attack in August, he returned to Washington, D.C., in a casket, and then onto Marion, Ohio, for burial, uniting the country in grief.
Prior to the trip, Pullman outfitted the car with a public address system for whistle stop speeches and a transmitter for broadcasting. This was the first nation-wide broadcast of Presidential speeches and the first time a car of this type was fitted with wireless equipment.
The Superb, which opened to the public in 1995, after an 18-month restoration project, is classified as a heavyweight. Heavyweight cars are distinguished by a riveted carbon steel body, six-wheel trucks, clerestory roof, a steel underframe shaped like a fish belly, and a concrete floor. These cars were so durable that many were in mainline service into the 1960s.
Built in 1911, the Superb is the second oldest heavyweight private car in existence, and the oldest that is still as built by Pullman.
Harding’s 10-car Presidential special traveled to Tacoma, WA, with intermediate stops at St. Louis, Denver, Salt Lake City, Butte, MT, Spokane, WA, and other cities. After a side trip to Alaska by ship, the President became ill and was rushed south to a San Francisco hospital where he died August 2. The last photograph of Warren G. Harding was taken as he left the Superb at Southern Pacific Station.
On August 3, slightly less than 24 hours after his death, Harding’s casket was placed back on board the Superb. The funeral train left the station behind a Mogul locomotive with a clanging bell; the growing crowds there were the first of an estimated 3,000,000 people who lined the tracks eastward to pay their last respects.
Today, the Superb is the only existing railcar to have carried the casket of a President during his term in office.
Prior to Harding’s trip, President Woodrow Wilson used the car on occasion. In 1926, it was painted red and temporarily re-named Pope Pius XI for use in the “Cardinals Train” that carried church officials from New York to Chicago for a Eucharistic Congress. During World War II, it saw service as a supply and porter car in New Jersey.
During most of the years between 1928 and its 1969 retirement, the Superb operated as a business car for the Charleston & Western Carolina Railroad. When successor railroad Seaboard Coast Line donated the car to the museum, it carried only a number. With its name removed, the Superb was lost to history for a time.
Time has done its damage in 87 years, but these heavyweights were built to last. The restoration project moves forward as we focus on those brief moments in 1923, when the Superb was the very center of the nation’s attention.