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First visit to US by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth included brief stop in Williamsport

A beautiful blue sky and bright sunshine greeted the 12 car silver and royal blue train as it pulled into Williamsport, according to the Williamsport Sun.

Thousands of residents came out to get a glimpse of the royal train of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England and Canada when it passed through Williamsport on its way to Washington, DC.

Pennsylvania tracks and crossings from west of Newberry to river bridge east of the city were lined with spectators despite the early hour of the visit. The local stop was part of the Royal Tour of Canada, which brought King George VI and Queen Elizabeth into the United States by way of the Canadian-U.S. border near Niagara Falls, marking the first time a reigning British monarch set foot on U.S. soil.

Even though the stop was brief, many hours of preparation went into it.

The electronic signals along the railroad between Linden and Renovo that warned of slides from the several steep hills were tested and extra trackwalkers were on duty checking the entire line in the area.

A crowd waits for the arrival of the Royal Train at the Park Hotel in 1939. SUN-GAZETTE ARCHIVE PHOTO

Railroad officials issued a blanket statement to all trainmen who would be employed in the switching of the royal train — “Don’t disturb the King and Queen.”

Hundreds of guards, including city police, state police, two National Guard units and Pennsylvania Railroad police assembled to protect the royal train as it passed through Williamsport.

Guards protected the right-of-way of the railroad from the western limits of Williamsport to the eastern exit, preventing sightseers from approaching too close to the tracks. The entrance to Park Hotel station, where the train stopped, was restricted to people with passes from the Department of State.

Traveling an hour ahead of its announced schedule, the 12-car royal train reached the Park Hotel station at 5:50 a.m. and sat for over 20 minutes, while mechanics checked the two huge engines and iced each coach. The crowds were not as large as they would have been had the train moved upon the announced schedule instead of an hour earlier. Hundreds of city residents missed the royal visit because the train’s speed had been stepped up from 30 to 40 miles per hour on the south-bound trip from Buffalo. Thirty miles per hour was the routine speed on the 6,500 mile excursion across Canada.

The last-minute shift in schedule was described by railroad police as one of the precautions ordered by the United States Department of State, official host to the King and Queen.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at a stop on the Royal Train Tour in Canada in 1939. The pair did not make an appearance on the platform in Williamsport.

Mrs. William McCormick and her two sons, Billy Jr. and Peter Herdic, missed the royal train by a few seconds and sped over the mountain to Montgomery, where they caught a glimpse of it, according to a Williamsport Sun article.

National Guard and others placed coins on the tracks for souvenirs until their commander called a halt to it. Many students from Williamsport Junior College had penny souvenirs after the train passed.

No member of the visiting family appeared during the 20-minute layover at the Park Hotel. Everything was quiet in the separate coaches occupied by King George and Queen Elizabeth at the end of the train.

Glimpsed through a window of the king’s coach was a wreath of flowers bearing the royal crown, looking a bit drooped. The royal toothbrushes could be seen suspended from a rack in the queen’s coach. Bud vases were on every table in the dining coach. New white caps to be doffed to their majesties were worn by the railroad crew aboard the special train, according to the story in the Williamsport Sun.

Clayton K. Shaibley of Williamsport, road foreman of engines on the Williamsport Division, was at the throttle of the lead engine No. 5385 when the special bearing the King and Queen reached the Park Hotel station. Shaibley piloted the train into Harrisburg from Renovo.

The passage through Williamsport was without mishap. However the pilot train encountered difficulties near Montgomery and had to be sidetracked to allow the royal train to proceed without delay. A “hot box” on one of the coaches caused a halt at Clinton Siding, near Montgomery. A hot box is the term used when an axle bearing overheats on a piece of railway rolling stock.

The 45-minute delay north of Montgomery for the pilot train gave railroaders a few anxious moments and established one precedent for their majesties. The royal special was forced to go around the press train and for the first time on their long journey the king and party were running without benefit of their special “test” train. The 12-car pilot train carried 56 newspaper correspondents, photographers, radio announcers and Washington correspondents, who traveled across Canada with their majesties. The primary purpose of the pilot train was to protect the special. It also included a photographic darkroom and members of the U.S. Secret Service.

Newspaper correspondents on the pilot train, which did not stop in Williamsport, threw their stories from the moving train to telegraph messengers and representatives to be filed from Williamsport.

From the city, the King and Queen’s train sped southward to Washington D.C., where President Franklin Roosevelt and the first family would receive them for a four-day visit.

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