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JFK's inauguration was 60 years ago: Look back at the day's history-making moments

Find out how dump trucks, flamethrowers and Boy Scouts saved the day — and learn about a few more surprising facts from John F. Kennedy’s swearing in.
President John F. Kennedy Makes Inauguration Speech
President John F. Kennedy making his inauguration speech from the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.Bettmann / Bettmann Archive
/ Source: TODAY

America will have a new president Wednesday when Joe Biden takes the oath of office, as 45 others have done before him. But due to the ongoing pandemic, a polarizing political climate and the recent deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol, Biden’s Inauguration Day won’t look like any past swearing in ceremonies.

There won’t be crowds filling the National Mall or the usual amount of pomp and circumstance. But the show will go on.

Wednesday also marks the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, and in the presidential pantheon of such events, it too was a standout occasion — for very different reasons.

Just take a look at some of the remarkable moments from JFK’s big day.

People standing in the cold to watch the
People huddled in the cold to watch the inaugural parade for President John F. Kennedy. Photo by Leonard Mccombe/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images / The LIFE Picture Collection via

A nor’easter nearly put the kibosh on the whole event.

The forecast for Kennedy’s Inauguration Day was “cold and windy with some sunshine and a high of not more than 35 degrees,” according to the records kept by the US Army Corps of Engineers. But the actual weather turned out to be far from what anyone expected.

On the eve of the event, a nor’easter dumped so much snow on the area that it caused a massive traffic jam that left thousands of vehicles stranded in place and blocked what would become the parade route the next morning. In other words, no one — not even the presidential motorcade — would have been able to plow through the path. At least not without a lot of help.

And that’s just what they got.

The USACE teamed up with others in D.C. to clear the way by any means necessary.

“In the end the task force employed hundreds of dump trucks, front-end loaders, sanders, plows, rotaries, and even flamethrowers to clear the way,” a USACE page explains. “District and Army equipment worked side-by-side to move more than 1,400 cars from the inaugural route. Another contingent of troops cleared the reviewing stands and bleachers at the White House and U.S. Capitol.”

Even 1,700 Boy Scouts helped get the job done.

Richard J. Cushing;Dwight D. Eisenhower;John F. Kennedy
Cardinal Richard J. Cushing giving the invocation at Inaugural Ceremony for President John F. Kennedy. Photo by George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images / The LIFE Picture Collection via

The presidential podium caught fire.

The troubles didn’t stop there. Once the festivities were underway, the podium — the same one Kennedy would go on to deliver his iconic address from — caught fire during Cardinal Richard Cushing’s invocation. As Cushing spoke and as the then-president-elect looked on, smoke began to billow out of the podium. But as video from event illustrates, officers were on their knees working to fix the problem and appeared to have it under control as the cardinal walked away.

Robert Frost Reading At Kennedy Inauguration
Poet Robert Frost reading his poem "The Gift Outright" at Kennedy's inauguration. Photo by George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images / The LIFE Picture Collection via

Robert Frost became first poet to participate, but it didn’t go as planned.

While Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama followed his lead, Kennedy was the first president to invite a poet to speak at his swearing in ceremony. He selected Robert Frost, who even penned a special poem for the occasion called “Dedication.” But he didn’t get to read it. Blame this one on the weather, too.

According to the Library of Congress, which houses the working draft of the poem, Frost was blinded by the glare of the sun reflecting off the snow and couldn’t make out the text he’d written. But the distinguished American poet didn’t waste the moment. Frost, instead, read another of his iconic works, “The Gift Outright,” from memory.

President Kennedy and Wife in Convertible
John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy leave the Capitol by car shortly after JFK took the oath of office.Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

It marked the end of a (top hat) era.

One longstanding presidential tradition returned and came to an end with JFK’s ceremony.

While it continues to be considered a formal event today, there was a time when presidents routinely wore top hats to their inaugurations. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president, eschewed the tradition, but Kennedy, No. 35, brought it back. Briefly.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Marks 100th Anniversary Of JFK's Birthday
The hat and gloves worn by Kennedy at his inauguration were on display at the “JFK 100: Milestones & Mementos Exhibit” at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images / Getty Images

He was the last president to complete his inaugural ensemble with a top hat. Both the distinguished topper and the gloves he wore that day appeared at a 2017 exhibit at John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

Never before was an inauguration broadcast in color.

In 1961, color television sets were still a rarity in American homes. But when JFK took the oath of office, those who had the luxury devices were treated to something never seen before — a presidential inauguration broadcast in color.

The Inauguration Of President John F. Kennedy
Kennedy is pictured at his inauguration with his parents, Rose and Joseph Kennedy (far left), first lady Jacqueline Kennedy (left), Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (right) and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson (far right).Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images / Getty Images

It was a history-making family affair.

At 43, Kennedy was the youngest elected president ever sworn into office. (Theodore Roosevelt was one year younger but entered the role by succession rather than election.) And with youth, came a special opportunity that presidents before him never had: With both of his parents, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, still alive, they were able to attend his inauguration and see him take on the role of commander-in-chief.

John F. Kennedy Taking Oath
President Kennedy used his family bible to take the oath.Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

JFK was the first president sworn in with a Catholic (Douay-Rheims) Bible.

When Kennedy took his oath of office, he placed his hand on a family Bible — as many others did before him. But as the first Catholic president, he was the first to use a Catholic Bible.

The 1850 leather-bound edition of the Douay-Rheims tome was handed down from his mother’s side of the family.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library states, “It contains 5 handwritten pages of the Fitzgerald family record, starting with Thomas A. Fitzgerald in 1857. There are notes for the engagement of Rose E. Fitzgerald and Joseph P. Kennedy, their marriage in October 1914, and a list of births for their nine children.”

No other president has been sworn in with a Catholic Bible since. However, that will change Wednesday. Biden will take his oath on his own family’s Douay-Rheims edition.