Barack Obama’s Inaugural Train Ride

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In the thousands they came Saturday, alone or as families, bundled against the arctic cold, jumping, waving, and screaming out as the silver train with the blue caboose whizzed by. In their hands they held posters, magazine covers, cameras, flags and hand-made signs. “Fired Up,” said one. “We Did It,” went another. “Happy Birthday Michelle,” read a third. A scattered few stood with toddlers clutching a pant leg, the bundled children learning what it’s like to watch history happen.

Inside Barack Obama’s private train to the 56th Inauguration of a President of the United States, the victor schmoozed and made jokes. “You are never too old,” he said, when asked about joy of tooting the train’s horn as it passed from Philadelphia through Wilmington and Baltimore to the nation’s capital. Joe Biden, his running mate, had jokes too. “Now look, you tell the president how important it is to fund Amtrak,” he announced, as he walked into one of the dining cars, where Obama was shooting the breeze with some supporters and his wife, Michelle, who was celebrating her 45th birthday. (Later in the day, in another train car, a group of children, likely including Sasha and Malia Obama, wore party hats under a “Happy Birthday” sign.)

At the whistle stop rallies, people shed tears–whole groups who had been shivering for hours so they could stand close to the stage. In Baltimore’s War Memorial plaza, the city’s Deputy Fire Chief estimated the crowd at 40,000, in air that froze toes through shoes and stung at exposed cheeks. “It’s great to have a president that understands all this is bigger than him,” said Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, in introduction. “The optimism, you can see it in the faces of your neighbors,” added the state’s governor, Martin O’Malley.

In his three addresses, Obama spoke of history and transformation. “What is required is a new Declaration of Independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives, from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry, an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels,” he said. Someone called to him from the crowd, and he looked away from the teleprompter. “I love you back,” he shouted. The crowd exploded with approval. Two blocks away, people had filled the balconies of a high-rise apartment building to glimpse their next president.

All along the train route, police cordoned off bridges and underpasses, stringing yellow police tape to hold back the onlookers, who sometimes gathered by the hundreds, and sometimes by the handful. A couple waved from their back porch. A man and a child stood in a field. Another watched alone on the roof of a delivery truck. At least one marching band gathered in uniform. Most days, the views from the commuter train tracks that pass between Philadelphia and Washington D.C. are not such a site to behold. In winter, it’s a dun patchwork of barren trees, industrial lots with rusted-out factories, and simple, sometimes blighted neighborhoods, burdened by overgrown lots and vacant buildings.

But on this day, many of those neighborhoods came to life. Most people could only see Obama’s train for a matter of seconds. It rarely slowed, and Obama only stepped outside the caboose to wave on a few occasions. But none of this seemed to dent the enthusiasm of the crowds. They cheered as if the train was coming to see them, as if Obama’s victory had been their victory, and it was only now just beginning. For miles and miles, for people in dress coats and work clothes, it was the same–Americans literally jumping for joy over a president who has changed his country without yet taking office.