Franklin D. Roosevelt’s private rail car during his days as governor of New York and through the first years of his presidency, known as the Marco Polo, now resides in Georgia.
Norfolk Southern recently honored its rich history by officially loaning the Marco Polo train car to the Southeastern Railway Museum — Georgia’s official transportation history museum. The exchange comes just days after the presidential election in the U.S., making the car’s history that much more significant.
Visitors Keith and Vicky Gardner of Thomaston drove up that day just “for kicks,” and ended up finding out about the event. Keith, being a presidential history enthusiast himself, decided he and wife couldn’t miss out on an opportunity of a lifetime.
“I actually had been wanting to come to the museum,” Vicky Gardner said following a guided tour through the Marco Polo, “so I looked on Facebook and thought it’d be really neat to come today of all days. It was a great coincidence, and we were just fascinated to see how [FDR] and his dignitaries traveled around.”
Roosevelt rented the almost-new car from the Pullman Company in 1927 and had it modified to meet his special needs in coping with his disability. Only one of those modifications, a brass rail above the president’s bed, remains in place today. Roosevelt most likely used this rail to help himself out of bed.
It has been reported that Roosevelt’s usher, William D. Simmons, bore such striking resemblance to FDR that he occasionally served as a stand-in, imitating the trademark Roosevelt smile and wave as the statesman napped in his stateroom during campaign trips. Roosevelt’s stateroom is now called the Marco Polo suite.
“Every dignitary had to have his own room. It was very fascinating, and the decor in there that they put — I wish I had some of that in my house,” Keith Gardner said with a laugh.
“And the wood!” Vicky Gardner chimed in, clearly fascinated.
“I was probably most amazed by the good use of space,” Keith Gardner said. “When you think about it, it’s not much space, but boy did they make good use out of it. They had separate places where you could sit and read or listen to the radio, just incredible use of space.”
While looking at each other, Keith and Vicky Gardner spoke about the radio telephone system inside the Marco Polo. They were amazed at how Roosevelt was able to make speeches from the train car and radios in the local area would simply pick them up.
The loan of the Marco Polo to the Southeastern Railway Museum comes on the eve of Norfolk Southern’s relocation of its headquarters to Atlanta, expected to be completed by the summer of 2021. Norfolk Southern’s purpose for the loan was to begin sharing the historical freight rail past with local communities, and claim a stake in the ground as neighbors in the Duluth community.
Randy Pirkle, former executive director of the museum, said he started planning for the transition about a year ago.
“We’re honored ... to receive this donation and to be able to place it alongside the Superb, which is president [Warren G.] Harding’s private car, so eventually the two of them will be cuddled together inside building one,” Pirkle said. “Together, these artifacts are going to help us interpret rail history, presidential history, rail transportation and the role railroads in particular played in that history.”
While the Marco Polo train car carried Roosevelt between the late 1930s into the early 1940s, it carried other notable historical figures as well like Madame Chiang Kai-Shek of China (the first lady of the Republic of China), Harvey Firestone (founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, one of the first global makers of automobile tires) and W.L. Mellon (founder of Gulf Oil) before it was brought to its 30-year resting place in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station in 1983.
Roosevelt then left the Marco Polo for a car named for another famous explorer, Ferdinand Magellan. That car, also Pullman-manufactured, was outfitted with armor plating and bulletproof glass, making it safer for a traveling president during wartime.
In 1944, the Central of Georgia, a Norfolk Southern predecessor, acquired the car and named it Savannah after its headquarters city. In 1989, the car’s original name was reassigned, and it was outfitted with a new stainless steel kitchen.
While in D.C., the Marco Polo was frequently visited by members of Congress and railroad officials. It was initially brought there for a centennial celebration of the late president’s birth.
Like many of the “folks” that get into railroading, Andrew Durden, a volunteer at the Southeastern Railway Museum since 1999 and current chief mechanical officer, said he grew up on stories of several of his relatives who worked for the railroads, which instilled in him a passion for the industry.
Durden said he believed it was important to get to know the personal stories of the people who worked and occupied the different locomotives in addition to learning their history.
“This particular relative that’s connected to the Marco Polo was my great, great uncle on my mother’s side,” Durden said. “His name was Angus McLeod and he was a Southern Railway engineer on the Atlanta division. He was near the top of the seniority list for most of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, so he regularly hauled the president and the Marco Polo on his trips to Warm Springs.”