It Came from the Archives: The Wiregrass Trip of the 1976 American Freedom Train

The SP 4449 with Amtrak Excursion Train, Miami to Birmingham, passes Ewell Hill, Ewell, AL on Jan. 16, 1977. (Wiregrass Archives)

The SP 4449 with Amtrak Excursion Train, Miami to Birmingham, passes Ewell Hill, Ewell, AL on Jan. 16, 1977. (Wiregrass Archives)

The Tom Solomon Photograph Collection sends us down a rabbit hole yet again with three unlabeled photos of, as it turns out, the American Freedom Train trip from Miami through the Wiregrass to Birmingham then to Portland, Oregon.

The SP No. 4449 passing through Dothan, Jan. 16, 1977. (Wiregrass Archives)
The SP No. 4449 passing through Dothan, Jan. 16, 1977. (Wiregrass Archives)

In 1972, as the US bicentennial approached, a commodities broker from New York City who was a steam locomotive engineer hobbyist, Ross Rowland, Jr., devised a plan to celebrate with a traveling exhibit of artifacts that were important in US history.

Rowland and friends created a foundation and secured corporate sponsors for 26-car American Freedom Train (AFT) pulled by steam locomotives that Rowland thought would attract more visitors than a modern diesel locomotive.  The AFT travelled for 21 months and touched all 48 states in the continental US, with Ross Rowland at the controls for most of that time.  The AFT hosted over 7 million paying visitors with more than 40 million watching the train pass by.

Our friends at BhamWiki have a list of the AFT’s artifacts, so here’s but a sample:  the first printed version of the US Constitution, the Louisiana Purchase treaty, an Arapaho war bonnet, a Remington Model No. 1 typewriter, a copy of Thomas Payne’s Common Sense, a 200-year-long collection of golf clubs, Judy Garland’s Wizard of Oz dress, Martin Luther King’s Bible, an 1834 B&O Railroad “Grasshopper” engine, and moon rocks.

The American Freedom Train Foundation procured three locomotives.  Rowland purchased AFT Locomotive No. 1 — the Reading Line Locomotive No. 2101 — from a Baltimore scrapyard and, in a “30-Day Miracle,” had it fully restored.  It began service on April 1, 1975, pulling the American Freedom Train from Wilmington, DE, through New England and the Midwest until August 4, 1975 when it was replaced by the Southern Pacific’s Locomotive No. 4449.

SP 4449 was built by the Lima (Ohio) Locomotive Works in 1941 as an oil-fueled steam engine.  It worked until 1958 when it was donated to the city of Portland, Oregon, and retired to Oaks Park.  Like the Reading 2101, it was reconditioned (at the Burlington Northern shops), December 1974 – April 1975.  It picked up the AFT in Chicago on August 4, 1975 and toured the western states until Memorial Day 1976 when it stopped in Birmingham.  Reading 2101 – having been repaired in the Southern Pacific’s Birmingham shops — took over until September 29 when SP 4449 relieved it in Alexandria, Virginia, and finished the bicentennial tour in Miami on December 31, 1976.

Courtesy of Wes Barris, SteamLocomotive.com
Courtesy of Wes Barris, SteamLocomotive.com

The third AFT locomotive was the Texas & Pacific No. 610, reconditioned from an engine built in 1927 that was retired in Fort Worth in 1951.  It pulled the AFT from Austin to Fort Worth, Texas, in February 1976.  In railroad lingo, it is a “2-10-4” (2 wheels in front, 10 driving wheels, 4 wheels under the cab) and is on display, appropriately, at the Texas State Railroad Hall of Giants.

The American Freedom Train was over at the end of 1976, but its SP Locomotive 4449 was not yet finished.  Instead, it pulled a modest Amtrak excursion train from Miami to Birmingham through the Alabama Wiregrass, January 14-16, 1977, on its long trek back to Portland.  Railroad photography enthusiast Tom Solomon caught this next-to-last leg in three pictures on January 16 between Dothan and Ewell on the former Alabama-Midland / Atlantic Coast Line / Seaboard Atlantic Line / Southern Railways tracks.

The SP 4449 at Pronto, AL, Jan. 16, 1977. (Wiregrass Archives)
The SP 4449 at Pronto, AL, Jan. 16, 1977. (Wiregrass Archives)

SP 4449 underwent repairs one last time in the Southern Pacific shops in Birmingham from January 16 to April 13, 1977.  Then for two weeks it pulled the Amtrak Transcontinental Steam Excursion to Portland.  It is now on display at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center.

Coda:  Two decades earlier, there had been a different Freedom Train.  From September 1947 until January 1949, the American Heritage Foundation sponsored a Freedom Train that toured 322 cities across the United States and hosted 3.5 million visitors. It carried 133 documents and artifacts important to US history that also spoke to Americans at the beginning of the Cold War.

You can see more of the Tom Solomon Photograph Collection at https://www.troy.edu/about-us/dothan-campus/wiregrass-archives/inventories/146.html.

Sources:

“The American Freedom Train.” Steamlocomotive.com. Accessed December 11, 2023. https://www.steamlocomotive.com/events/aft/.

Dystopos. “American Freedom Train.” BhamWiki, May 27, 2015. https://www.bhamwiki.com/w/American_Freedom_Train.

Little, Stuart J. “The Freedom Train: Citizenship and Postwar Political Culture 1946-1949.” American Studies 34, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 35–67.

Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation. “Our Locomotives.” Accessed December 11, 2023. https://orhf.org/visit-orhc/.

Smith, Susan W. “Meet Ross Rowland, Train Engineer.” Thousand Islands Life Magazine, January 14, 2022. https://thousandislandslife.com/meet-ross-roland-train-engineer-par-excellence/.

 “Timeline for the 1975 – 1976 Bicentennial American Freedom Train.” The Story of the 1975-1976 American Freedom Train. Accessed December 11, 2023. https://www.freedomtrain.org/american-freedom-train-timeline-printable.htm.

Wines, Larry. “The Story of the 1975 – 1976 American Freedom Train.” The Story of the 1975 – 1976 American Freedom Train. Accessed December 11, 2023. https://www.freedomtrain.org/american-freedom-train-home.htm.

FacebookTwitterPinterestLinkedIn