Editor’s Note: This is the 326th in a series of articles recalling vanished Huntington scenes.
HUNTINGTON — On Sept. 26, 1948, more than 10,000 Huntington area residents stood in line to view the treasured American documents aboard the Freedom Train, then touring the nation.
The train had started its journey in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1947. Huntington was the 288th city visited by the gleaming red, white and blue diesel streamliner. Aboard the train were important artifacts of American history: the newly iconic flag from Joe Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima photograph; the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address; a letter from Christopher Columbus; George Washington’s original copy of the Constitution; and the Declaration of Independence itself. The train even carried an original of the Magna Carta of 1215.
The idea to send a history-filled train around the country came from William Coblenz, an assistant director at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Coblenz regularly took a lunch-time walk that often took him to the nearby National Archives, where he enjoyed perusing the historic documents there. Many Americans, he figured, would never get the chance to visit such treasures. Why not bring the treasures to them?
Coblenz shared his idea with his boss, Attorney General Tom Clark, who in turn took it to President Truman, who endorsed it and set in motion a private fund-raising drive to make the train a reality.
In Huntington the train was positioned on a roped-off Chesapeake and Ohio Railway siding in the 1200 block of 8th Avenue. The train was welcomed by the usual public officials and the Huntington High School band. Boy Scouts helped manage the waiting crowd, which stretched for blocks, all day and into the night.
Footnote: A second train, the steam-powered American Freedom Train, toured the country in 1975-76 to commemorate the nation’s Bicentennial. When it visited Huntington for two days (Sept. 25-26, 1976), it attracted a crowd of more than 31,000 visitors — easily dwarfing the crowd of 10,000 or so who visited the original 1948 train during its one-day Huntington stop.