Sunday, May 24, 2020

Wilmington's Role in The Lady Bird Special

Early 1900s Postcard View of Wilmington Shops
Wilmington has been a railroad town since America became connected by steel rails. There are countless bits of history tied to Wilmington and its railroads. This little bit tells how in 1964 the employees at the Pennsylvania Railroad's shop at Wilmington played a role in making history. 

On October 6, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson's wife, Lady Bird Johnson, did something no other First Lady had ever done. Instead of campaigning along side of her husband, she embarked on a solo campaign tour. The ground-breaking four-day, 1,628-mile campaign trip took place aboard a train dubbed The Lady Bird Special. She traveled through eight southern states, campaigning on behalf of her husband. 

Library of Congress Photo by Marion S. Trikosko
Lady Bird was able to promote her husband's agenda while using her own southern roots to carefully balance southern tradition with idea of Civil Rights. The First Lady and her staff planned the tour and she personally contacted the various elected officials in each of the eight states to lay the groundwork for her stops. The food served on board was all southern cuisine chosen by Lady Bird herself. 

The Morning News,  Oct_2, 1964
Photo by Bill Snead
Blueprint use by the workers at Wilmington
U.S. National Archives
The Democratic National Committee went to the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) to supply a luxury railcar, called an observation car for Lady Bird. The parlor-observation car, Queen Mary, was selected. In September 1964 the craftsmen at the PRR's Wilmington shops took on the task to refurbish and repaint the car for the First Lady's historic journey. Lady Bird's train was 19 cars, but only her observation car, was painted red, white, and blue with unique Lady Bird Special lettering. The open platform of the observation car was fitted with a podium and loudspeakers. 

The Evening Journal, Oct 2, 1964
Photo by Bill Snead
Photo from Facebook
by Ed Swientochowski

National Endowment for the Humanities
photographer unknown
Lady Bird's help was badly needed because the south was in turmoil over the Civil Rights movement. Lady Bird said, “I want to go because I am proud of the South and I am proud that I am part of the South.”  Lady Bird's press secretary Liz Carpenter later wrote, “Our star attraction was a Southern-bred First Lady. We were supposed to blow kisses and spread love through eight states and make them like it….”

LBJ Postcard
LBJ Library
In four days, Lady Bird traveled from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans making 47 speeches in 47 towns to approximately 500,000 southerners. President Johnson won the election and Lady Bird is credited with helping him win many votes in the south. 

Lady Bird's observation car was returned to regular service for a number of years before being sold off and used as part of a railroad-themed restaurant in Wayne, New Jersey. It was scrapped in the early 2000s. 
The former Lady Bird Special in Wayne, NJ by Rob Schoenberg

The former PRR Wilmington Shops continue to play an important role for Amtrak and employ many men and women who continue Wilmington's historic and economic ties to the nation's railroad system. 

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