Throngs mourned alongside President McKinley’s funeral train
It was almost 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 16, 1901, and the train station behind Park Hotel, at the corner of West Fourth and Campbell streets, was crowded.
Businesses were closed for the day and schools had been let out. Residents of all ages, from Williamsport and throughout Lycoming County, stood on either side in somber lines to pay their respects.
“The (Williamsport) schools were dismissed and all business was suspended during the transit of the train through the city,” reported a writer for the Sept. 17 edition of The Record-Argus from Greenville.
A train that carried both the 26th president of the United States and the remains of the 25th president of the United States was expected to roll into town.
Just 10 days before, in Buffalo, New York, President William McKinley was greeting a line of people at the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition. A 28 year-old anarchist named Leon Czolgosz hid a revolver under a hankerchief. When McKinley reached out to shake his hand, Czolgosz shot the 58 year-old McKinley once in the stomach and once in the chest.
As McKinley fell back, Czolgosz was captured.
“(McKinley) Falls By Assasin’s Bullet!” read the headline of the Sept. 7, 1901, edition of the Williamsport Sun Gazette — then called The Daily Gazette & Bulletin. “The Nation’s Beloved Chief Receives Two Shots to the Stomach.”
At 2:15 a.m. Sept. 14, McKinley, while staying at the Millburn House in Buffalo, died from gangrene poisoning resulting from the bullet wounds and infection.
Vice President Theodore Roosevelt quickly rushed to Buffalo and was sworn in as president. He would travel with McKinley’s body; McKinley’s wife, Ida; and other members of McKinley’s cabinet via train from Buffalo to Washington, D.C.
The Record-Argus would report that McKinley’s funeral train left early and rolled through Olean, New York, at 10:30 a.m. As the train passed through Pennsylvania, it reached Lock Haven where the Daily Gazette & Bulletin detailed how “young ladies of the city lined up along the track and strewed the path … with flowers.”
Several boys also “placed silver coins on the track,” which flattened the “bits of silver for preservation as momentos in their families for all time.”
But as the train “came slowly rolling into the Williamsport station,” McKinley’s widow, Roosevelt and the rest of the passengers were greeted “with tolling bells, the muffled roll of drums and the chimes of the Trinity Episcopal Church ringing out in subdued tones ‘Lead, Kindly Light,’ the favorite hymn of the martyr president,” according to the Record-Argus.
Also waiting as the Williamsport station was a “guard of honor” that was “composed of four companies of the 12th regiment (of the National Guard of Pennsylvania); Reno post, Grand Army of the Republic; Veteran Legion, Sons of Veterans and the Spanish-American war veterans.”
As these soldiers stood by, “several beautiful floral pieces were handed aboard, among them being a massive bouquet of American beauty roses for Mrs. McKinley” and while this occurred, “the train was thoroughly examined by the car inspectors, and the engine took on a fresh supply of water.”
A reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer said in the Sept. 18 edition that “along the route of the funeral train … there was no more impressive sight than that of thousands of school children lined up along the railroad tracks. At Williamsport a most impressive showing was made by the little ones. The scholars of the St. Boniface and the Washington Building Schools (were) particularly prominent.”
The whole stop in Williamsport lasted five minutes and, as the train pulled out of the station near the Park Hotel, the mourners aboard would see that, for about 2 miles, “the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad were lined on either side with a weeping and (an) uncovered multitude, who had assembled for the purpose of paying their last respects to the dead and honored president.”
The train would continue on to Watsontown, and the Sun Gazette reported that a “crowd stood with uncovered heads” while a band played “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
The funeral train then made its way to Sunbury and it was described, by the “Sun Gazette” that through the crowd “all hats were lifted and from wet eyes and bowed heads (as) the funeral head (train) was watched until its disappearance in the distance.”
As the train continued on to Harrisburg, passengers would see Sunbury’s Third Street “was literally covered with flags and bunting, all heavily draped in crepe.”
The train continued to Harrisburg where Gov. William Stone and his wife, Elizabeth, would be waiting at the station.
“God in his infinite wisdom has seen fit to remove by death the beloved and honored chief magistrate of our nation in the midst of his official career,” said Stone in a proclamation that was quoted in The Harrisburg Telegraph on Sept. 14, 1901. “This great calamity has deprived us of one of the best presidents of this country.”
McKinley’s remains would travel on to Baltimore, then Washington, D.C., where he would lie in state. After that, on Sept. 18, McKinley would return to his home in Canton, Ohio, and was interred in West Lawn Cemetery where a memorial would be built in his honor. Ida McKinley, his widow, would join him in death in 1907.
As for Czolgosz, he was quickly arrested, tried and found guilty of murder. He was executed in the electric chair on Oct. 29, 1901.
Though the funeral train’s passage through Williamsport was brief, photographs were taken for posterity. Three of the images exist in the digital archives of the James V. Brown Library in Williamsport and can be viewed by the public today.