Christian Alderson of Berryville, Va., went to Memphis, Tenn., in 1968 to support the sanitation workers strike and said he was there when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
"That day was sorrowful," Alderson, 73, said as he stood near the mall. "This is a dream come true for me."
At the opposite end of town, Georgetown University students chanted "Obama!" and "Fired up Ready to Go!" as they walked down M Street toward the Mall.
Suburban subway riders also seemed to be in a jubilant mood, despite the early hour. In Fredericksburg, Va., an hour south of Washington, chants of "Obama! Obama!" rang out at a commuter rail station when the line started moving at 5 a.m. for the first trip into Washington.
World history teacher Calvin Adams of Arlington, Va., said he got up extra early so he could witness history being made first-hand and teach it to his classes.
"Eventually I'll teach American history," said Adams, 23. "I'll say, 'This is how it works because I've been there, I've seen it."'
The joyous mood was tempered only by delays and by the dashed expectations of revelers eager to get an up-close look at history.
Alice Williams, a 51-year-old teacher of gifted children from Kansas City, Mo., had coveted the purple tickets that would placed her in front of the Capitol. Instead, she was about a half mile away.
"We got blocked off; there was too much traffic and no guidance," she said forlornly. "I've been walking for an hour and a half. All I want to do is see my president sworn in"
One parade entrance was supposed to open at 7 a.m. The crowd, which was one-block deep, counted down at 7 a.m. The gate did not open. The chants got louder at 7:30 a.m., but the gates remain closed.