White Publishing Company

Presidents: The Ferdinand Magellan

Presidential Rail Car, 1943-1958

Visited in 2021.

Air travel was a thing in the 1940s, but the industry hadn't quite figured out how to make it sexy. It wasn't fun to make out with your secretary when the engine noise was so loud, you'd never hear your wife approaching. You also couldn't have a delightful four-course dinner when random air pockets might launch the hot soup course onto your crotch at any moment. Why, that would make the canoodling even tougher!

No, in the 1940s, if you wanted discreet and sumptuous travel, rail was king. And the president of the United States deserved nothing less than the finest of rail cars. The Pullman Company was a luxury brand -- Abraham Lincoln's son had once been the president of the company! And you could modify a rail car to keep it safe from shadowy German saboteurs.

The Pullman company built six rail cars named after explorers -- although no one every explored anything via railroad -- and the U.S. government acquired the Ferdinand Magellan. It was modified with Nazi-proof armor plating, then put at the disposal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a guy who knew something about rolling all over the place.

The Ferdinand Magellan served FDR, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower before technological advances forced it into retirement. The government was ready to dump it on the ash heap of history, but the Gold Coast Railroad Museum -- in Miami -- snapped it up in the late 1950s. They have held it ever since, with a brief interlude to lend it to Ronald Reagan for a campaign event in 1984.

I finally got to visit this chariot of the gods in March 2021. (America was shut down, but Florida was open.) The first thing you need to realize about the Ferdinand Magellan: luxury is relative. Even after modifications -- a few bedrooms were converted into social areas -- it's not exactly spacious. The "hallway" between rooms is barely wide enough for my body, shoulder to shoulder -- so imagine the gymnastics required to get a customized FDR wheelchair back and forth. FDR enjoyed a little more personal space in his quarters, because his wife rarely traveled with him and took a separate cabin when she did. But it wasn't exactly the Ritz, and if he wanted to make time with his personal assistant everyone on board definitely would have known about it. He had the room to lay down, read a book, sign a few executive orders and not much else.

The dining room, at least, was the full width of the car. They squeezed in a decent sized dining table and slapped some wood paneling on the walls to class the place up; you could have a very classy dinner for eight, as long as no one was too beefy and everyone could hold their bladders for the course of the meal.

The observation lounge at the far end wasn't too bad, either. You could pal around with cronies or less-ethical journalists while relaxing in relatively comfortable chairs, watching the tracks disappear behind you. Of course, everyone was probably smoking, so the entire Ferdinand Magellan probably smelled like Satan's armpit. They would have been used to it back then, but the mustiness lives on today.

FDR rode about 50,000 miles in the Ferdinand Magellan, with his last trip being a dip down to his vacation home in Warm Springs, Georgia, in the spring of 1945. He used the train briefly when he was a corpse -- it carried his body up to Hyde Park for his funeral -- but they probably don't count that on his mileage totals.

It was Truman, however, that captured my imagination. Every news outlet had written Harry off in 1948, but he never gave up hope. The Magellan was one of his secret weapons, as he crossed the country in a whistlestop campaign and gave hundreds of speeches from the back platform. (It was rigged up with a presidential podium and a decent speaker system for just such occasions.) He was on the Magellan a few days after his victory, when someone handed him a copy of the Chicago Tribune with the famously flubbed headline, "Dewey Defeats Truman." He held it up for the crowds while standing on the back of the Magellan, posing for what is now one of the most famous photos in American history.

The Gold Coast Railroad Museum won't let you stand on the platform, but we got there early enough that they gave us free run of the interior. (The docent hadn't showed up yet.) They also have displays in other cars of past train menus (with a disturbing number of courses) and some info about how many workers it took to make the Magellan run. If you think the president was a little cramped, imagine where they stashed the gaggle of black and Filipino stewards who had to make the whole journey seem effortless.

It's a monument to another era -- and the timeless elegance of rail travel. Chugga chugga choo choo, y'all.