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Historical Documents Initiate Development of New Exhibit on 1945 Presidential Funeral Train

Thanks to a new donation, the C&O Historical Society has been able to develop a special exhibit that highlights not only a piece of railroad history, but a story involving one family’s personal connection to a presidential funeral train that passed through Virginia.

Ahead of the 2023 travel season, the non-profit organization that preserves and shares the history of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway started developing new exhibits for the C&O Railway Heritage Center, many of which are based on recent donations by members and supporters who have chosen the 54-year-old organization as the permanent safekeeper for their artifacts.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s funeral train at the Southern Railway station in Charlottesville, Virginia with a military honor guard along northwestern platform and mourners along southeastern platform, as well as on West Main Street Bridge over the Southern Railway line (img001.JPG; April 14, 1945, courtesy of the Rip Payne Collection/Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society

Thanks to Jack Yowell of Palmyra, Virginia, volunteers for the C&O Historical Society have completed a new exhibit connected to a prominent and mainstream historical topic–the funeral train of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Jack donated an artifact that his father, Mr. Kemper Rea Yowell, obtained while on the periphery of a president’s final journey as the funeral train made its way north from Georgia to New York.  President Roosevelt, a New York native, passed away in Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945, near the end of World War II.

In a period before sophisticated two-way radios and remotely-controlled rail movements, a complex network of communication existed by which physical orders from railway officials were passed down the chain of command and hand delivered to train crews.  Written on a specific form, various pieces of information would be passed along to railroad employees operating each train with instructions from the dispatcher, who was controlling each district’s traffic and train movements.

Mr. Kemper Rea Yowell, engineer on a southbound C&O Railway freight train coming out of Potomac Yard in April 1945, received a pair of train orders as his train passed CR Tower on the Southern Railway, near Alexandria, Virginia.  These orders instructed Mr. Yowell what to do when his train met and passed the northbound Southern Railway special funeral train carrying President Roosevelt’s casket following his passing in Georgia.  These train orders gave all other trains in the region wait or time orders as well as information on when and where the funeral train would pass.

Afterward, the train orders were kept by Mr. Yowell, and they have now been donated to the Clifton Forge-based museum by his son, Jack.

• Military Honor Guard along northwestern Southern Railway platform and lighted Pullman car with coffin bearing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (img002.JPG; 1948, courtesy of the Rip Payne
Collection/Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society).

Remarking on the significance of such artifacts to their interpretive museum, C&O Historical Society President Mark Totten noted, “Donations such as this give us the best possible method by which to tell the rich and complex story of American railroading and how national historical events often intersect with the railroad.  We thank Jack Yowell and his family, all of whom joined us in Clifton Forge for a special dedication of this new exhibit based on the 1945 train orders which show how the C&O Railway’s operations intersected with the special train.”

Totten added, “C&OHS contributors Dave Ostrander and Charles McIntyre completed photo research, exhibit design, and gave insight into the logistical details surrounding the train orders.  We give them tremendous thanks for their help in making the Yowell donation such a wonderful addition to our interpretive museum.

C&O Historical Society member and donor Jack Yowell and C&OHS President Mark Totten shake hands at the March 25 dedication for the new train order exhibit in the Freight House museum at the organization’s C&O Railway Heritage Center (image127.jpg; Dave Ostrander photo, March 25, 2023, courtesy of the Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society).

Jack Yowell expressed satisfaction with his decision to donate the FDR train orders and the C&O Historical Society’s creation of the new exhibit, “Now I know this piece of history my father saved is going to be preserved.  It means so much that this small moment in my father’s career is going to be seen and remembered in Clifton Forge.”

Having followed in his father’s footsteps, Jack Yowell was a C&O Railway engineer on the Piedmont and Washington Subdivisions and on the Buckingham Branch Railroad.

Totten concluded, “Even among those who are familiar with President Roosevelt’s funeral train that passed from Georgia to New York, it’s rarely considered how complicated this train’s move north was in wartime and how many cities and railroads were impacted.  With this donation and the resulting exhibit, now we can showcase Virginia’s regional connection to our longest-serving president’s final journey.”

The C&O Railway Heritage Center museum is open from Tuesday through Sunday, 10 AM – 4 PM, at 705 Main Street, Clifton Forge, VA.  More information about the museum and special events can be found on Facebook under @CandOHeritage.

The C&O Historical Society’s Business Office & Archive is open Monday through Friday from 9 AM – 5 PM and may be contacted by telephone at 540-862-2210 or by email at [email protected].

The C&OHS archive database is available online at archives.cohs.org.  Updates and additional information can be found on Facebook under @cohs.org or on Instagram @ChessiesRoad.

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