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1976 Freedom Train’s visit to city recalled

When the red, white and blue America Freedom Train pulled into Williamsport in July of 1976, it had already logged 19,860 miles and criss-crossed through much of America, visiting 34 states and 97 cities.

Thousands of area residents came out, some dressed in colonial garb, to see the train and celebrate the bicentennial, our nation’s 200th birthday.

The Freedom Train was a living, moving documentary comprised of a half mile of train cars — 25 in all, filled with over 500 pieces of Americana. It was billed as containing the “sights, sounds and artifacts of our past.”

The train was the idea of stockbroker and train buff Ross Roland and was supported solely by private donations and ticket sales.

Members of the press and officials from the city’s welcoming committee, about 30 people in all, rode the train from Lock Haven to Williamsport, where a large crowd has gathered to see the red, white and blue train. Between Lock Haven and Williamsport, hundreds of people lined the tracks at various points along the route.

Many carried cameras and wore big smiles and waved to those on board, held up babies while youngsters raced the train on bicycles. Coin after coin was laid on rails of the track. Leroy Miller, of Woolrich, and Darrill Pryor, originally of Williamsport, were two of the many who made their own souvenirs that day,

“We laid 1976 bicentennial pennies on the tracks for souvenirs,” Miller said.

“I still have the pennies and nickels,” Pryor said.

The 25-car train was backed in by a 400-ton former Reading steam locomotive from Lock Haven. Backing into the city was necessary because since their was no longer a thruway to and from the city on the former tracks.

It was on display July 14 and 15, 1976, along Little League Boulevard, between Hepburn and Walnut streets, and 52 planters were removed from Center City to place along Little League Boulevard to beautify the area for the occasion.

A ceremony was held to welcome the freedom train to the city, a plaque signed by city Mayor Daniel P. Kirby was presented to John Manning, vice president of the Freedom Train, proclaiming July 14 and 15 “Freedom Days’ in the city.

After their arrival in the city, a locomotive took cars to a site near Fifth Avenue, including a ticket concession car and a hopper with extra coal. After the engine was returned to the main train, Williamsport firefighters refilled it with water from a nearby hydrant and the crew washed the outside.

The 400-ton engine and its two tenders were 160 feet long. There were plenty of souvenirs to be had to commemorate the visit. Coins, hats, programs, dishes, teacups and flags were a few of the items for sale.

An average of 1,100 people an hour toured the train in Williamsport. The cost of admission was $2 for adults and $1 for seniors and those under 18, which was about the cost of a movie in 1976.

Carol Reamsnyder Barker remembers her fourth-grade class from Lose Elementary touring the train with her teacher Mrs. Neese.

“I was 11 when it was here,” Reamsnyder Barker said. “It was a really hot day and someone was selling watermelon down by the train. We all wore outfits to school in the style of 1776.”

While waiting in line, visitors had an opportunity to view the glass enclosed showcase cars, which contained a series of wheeled vehicles from throughout the country’s past including a lunar rover. Also on display was the Freedom Bell, a Liberty Bell replica twice the size of the original Liberty Bell. The Freedom Bell was one of the most memorable items on the train.

“I was 8 years old and remember being excited to see the steam train and all the history, especially the Liberty Bell,” Patrick Greenabaum, of Clarkstown, said.

Twenty pairs of windows on each side of the train were lighted for nighttime viewing from the outside.

Eric Huffman, of Montoursville, remembers being excited to see the train as a 12-year-old.

“I was there; it was the coolest thing,” Huffman said. “Cars had neat stuff in them like the Liberty bell. I got my picture taken with the big engine.”

Visitors on the inside were whisked by memorabilia on a moving walkway, while a soundtrack described the items that were displayed, according to the Washington Post. Items on display included a copy of the Louisiana Purchase, a copy of the Constitution that belonged to George Washington, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s pulpit and robes, a moon rock, Joe Frazier’s boxing trunks, Judy Garland’s dress from the Wizard of Oz, John F. Kennedy’s rocking chair, the Stanley Cup and Thomas Edison’s first light bulb, according to Freedomtrain.org.

The crew of 130 was housed at the Lycoming College dorms and the Genetti Hotel. The crew included guards, hosts, concessionaires and more, and 20 to 30 people remained on the train overnight.

The train left Friday morning for Binghamton, New York. Its final destination was Miami, Florida, and once it reached Miami, it had logged 24,000 miles in 21 months.

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