NAVASOTA, Texas — Those who live or work near the train tracks in Navasota constantly hear a train’s horn blast. All day, and all night. This little Texas town is a microcosm of towns built by the American railroad. And Thursday afternoon, it was one of the last towns in America to bid farewell to former President George H.W. Bush.
Thousands lined the Union Pacific track in Navasota to say goodbye and catch a glimpse of the late president who passed away last Friday. A week’s worth of funerals and national mourning culminated in Bush’s adopted home state, Texas. Bush became just the eighth president in history to be carried by train in his funeral procession, and the first since President Dwight Eisenhower’s funeral in 1969.
Ever since he began riding trains during his campaign for reelection against Bill Clinton in a feisty 1992 campaign, Bush knew he one day wanted locomotive transportation to his final resting place.
“I love the American people, and this train trip is fantastic,” Bush said during the 1992 campaign. “You get outside of that Beltway, you take your case to genuine Americans.”
On Thursday afternoon, Bush passed genuine Americans standing in a chilly rain to line the rail tracks from North Houston to College Station, with many towns not familiar to America. Names like Klein, Pinehurst, Stagecoach, Tomball, Todd Mission, Plantersville, Stoneham, Millican and Wellborn. Whether in designated highway intersections or remote places on private properties, Texans watched, saluted, filmed and photographed the procession by Union Pacific Engine 4141, specifically designed for the 41st President.
In Navasota proper, which has a little more than 7,000 residents, the onlookers lined up on, appropriately named, Railroad Street. Among the couple thousand people who jammed the east and west side of the tracks in Navasota were people from nearby Brenham to those more than three hours away from Dallas, hoping to catch a glimpse of Bush.
Navasota was a town that blossomed from the railroad boom. Old hotels, saloons and department stores — where Railroad Street meets the main drag in town — have turned into shops, stores, the local newspaper, boutiques, a bank and a live theater. Most of the second and third floors are mostly abandoned, but they became viewing areas for locals on Thursday. Children and adults leaned over balconies and through upper-level windows, waving American flags.
People of all ages and races lined Railroad Street on Thursday, some standing four hours prior to the former president’s arrival and ensuing entourage of 10 more rail cars. Local leaders, both Democrat and Republican, stood shoulder-to-shoulder to honor another Texas president.
Children waved American flags, veterans stood at attention and the air was electric leading up to the event. This is a town that shows up for its annual Veterans Day and Christmas parades. And Thursday looked like a half year of planning to get this many people. And folks in Navasota didn’t disappoint.
Schools let out early on Thursday, and most of the local businesses shut down for the train’s arrival. The anticipation on Railroad Street and surrounding neighborhoods was more overwhelming than the damp, chilly air, which seemingly deterred no one.
When people spotted choppers in the air from the Texas Department of Public Safety, they knew the train was near. And in the distance, locals heard a familiar noise — a train blast. But this wasn’t any ordinary train rolling through town delivering oil supplies to the coast, or coastal supplies back up the line. This railroad town knew something special was around the bend.
The train’s horn grew louder each time it whistled. The headlights of Engine 4141 finally poked around the corner on this gloomy, gray and rainy day, and a gripping silence of mourning took over the city, with exception to a few faint cheers for Bush’s arrival.
For as much history as the rail line has seen in this remote outpost that burgeoned into a small city — the boom, the hotels, the bars, the cat houses, the shootings in the street, an infamous derailment and the horrific epidemic — the history unfolding before its eyes was evident.
Neither red or blue, nor Republican or Democrat, mattered when Bush rolled through town Thursday with his family and friends in tow. People from all colors of the political spectrum united as one in this small slice of Americana on Thursday. They were all united today as they were in 2012 and 2014 — when the local high school Rattlers football team won the state championship.
Bush 41 was known for reaching across the aisle and working with his opponents, even if it irked those close to him. This president looked to see the good in people. Just like folks in towns like Navasota sought after on this last voyage.
Bush will forever lay in the city of College Station, at his library, just north of Navasota. But folks like these in Navasota will keep the Bush spirit, even more evident with the sounding of each train’s passing horn. Like so many others in this country.