Lincoln's travels

LA Times | Travel

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Maybe it was during the surprise storm in New York City. Or earlier, during the growing light of dawn in Xenia, Ohio. Or on a cold afternoon outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Somewhere along the line, I realized that, in chasing the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, I was ...

By Patrick T. Reardon // 07.08.09

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Maybe it was during the surprise storm in New York City. Or earlier, during the growing light of dawn in Xenia, Ohio. Or on a cold afternoon outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that, in chasing the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, I was engaged in a marathon. It was exhausting.

And exhilarating.

In this bicentennial year of Lincoln's birth, and 144 years after his assassination, I was retracing the trip that the newly elected president took in February 1861. Starting in Springfield, I was following him through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania and on to Washington.

Those were the days when political etiquette required candidates to stay at home during the presidential campaign. But, once elected, the winner was free to do a bit of barnstorming. As Harold Holzer notes in his 2008 book "Lincoln President-Elect" (Simon & Schuster), the journey to the nation's capital provided a way for incoming presidents, ranging from George Washington to Andrew Jackson, to get out and take the pulse of the citizenry.

In making his trek, Lincoln rode on a series of trains. I was driving. He took 12 days. I had allotted myself five.

No wonder, then, that I was getting up early and driving late into the night to cover a lot of territory to see places where he stood and relics he touched, and the memorials that now mark his passage. With 1,600 miles to cover and a dozen cities to visit, I didn't have much time to linger anywhere.

But neither did Lincoln. He ran his own marathon, rumbling down the rails for more than 1,900 miles on 18 railroad lines, according to Holzer. During stops at 80-plus cities, villages and hamlets, Lincoln gave more than 101 speeches, or about eight a day.

At some point along the route, I wondered whether, over the previous century and a half, anyone else had tried to retrace his journey in a single trip. Maybe I was the first. It was crazy -- but, gee, for the whole trip, I was sharing this landscape with the greatest president the nation has ever had.

True, I was stopping only at places where I knew there was something of interest to see or experience. But I was following the same line that he took across the map from Springfield to D.C. A more sensible soul might take just a segment of the trip -- say, Lincoln's stops in New York or Indiana.

In making his journey, Lincoln was seeking to connect with large swatches of the North. His route was carefully drawn to take in as many highly populated areas as possible and also to avoid going into any Southern state, particularly Virginia, for fear of provoking an angry reaction.

In chasing his ghost, I found myself not only following in his footsteps but also moving through multiple layers of history. In all my driving, I found not only Lincoln but also Washington, William McKinley, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and -- in Manhattan -- Ground Zero.

For me -- and for anyone else who reveres Lincoln and history -- it was a trip for the ages.


Standing on the platform of the rear passenger car on Feb. 11, 1861, the day before his 52nd birthday, Lincoln could see before him a crowd of 1,000 people. Raising his hands for silence, he told them:

"My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried.

"I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.

"Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell."

Or something like that.

The speech he actually gave was a bit more wordy and a bit less eloquent. But, as the train rumbled out of town, Lincoln, realizing the importance of this farewell address, wrote part of it out longhand and dictated the rest to a secretary. This more poetic version, given above, is the one most often quoted.

Tolono, Ill.

A booming cannon welcomed Lincoln to Tolono, and, in response to the cheers of townspeople, the president-elect quoted poetry: "I am leaving you on an errand of national importance, attended, as you are aware, with considerable difficulties. Let us believe, as some poet has expressed it: 'Behind the cloud the sun is still shining.' I bid you an affectionate farewell."

State Line City, Ill.

During a break at the Indiana State Line, the party lunched "on indifferent food at double the regular price," according to one reporter. More than 2,000 people had gathered to see and hear Lincoln.

Xenia, Ohio

Lincoln's train made a string of stops on Feb. 13 on its way from Cincinnati to Columbus -- Milford, Loveland, Miamiville, Morrow, Corwin, Xenia and London. At Xenia, the enthusiastic crowd "acted more like crazy people than American citizens," according to one reporter.


Just two days earlier in Indianapolis, Lincoln had indicated a willingness to fight to save the Union. But, speaking to state legislators in the new state capitol in Columbus, he said he had no anxieties because "there is nothing going wrong. ...We entertain different views upon political questions, but nobody is suffering anything."

The New York Herald's response was: " 'Nothing going wrong'? Why, sir, we may more truly say there is nothing going right."

Four years later, Lincoln's body would lie in state in the capitol on the way back to Springfield.


After spending the night at the Monongahela House in Pittsburgh, Lincoln went out on the hotel's balcony on Feb. 15 to address some 5,000 spectators, clustered under "an ocean of umbrellas," again insisting, as he had in Columbus, that the nation had nothing to fear. "In plain words, there is really no crisis except an artificial one!"

Henry Villard, a reporter-friend of Lincoln's who covered the pre-inaugural trip for the New York Herald, wrote later that this speech was the president-elect's "least creditable performance" during the 12 days. "What he said was really nothing but crude, ignorant twaddle, without point or meaning," he wrote. "It proved him to be the veriest novice in economic matters, and strengthened my doubts as to his capacity for the high office he was to fill."

Westfield, N.Y.

Several thousand people were gathered in Westfield on Feb. 16 to greet Lincoln. "Some months ago," he told them, "I received a letter from a young lady here; it was a very pretty letter, and she advised me to let my whiskers grow, as it would improve my personal appearance; acting partly upon her suggestion, I have done so; and now, if she is here, I would like to see her."

"There she is, Mr. Lincoln," a small boy shouted, pointing to Grace Bedell, the 12-year-old letter writer whom reporters described as a "beautiful girl, with black eyes."

Lincoln left the railroad car and, "amid the yells of delight from the excited crowd," gave Grace "several hearty kisses."


Later in the day in Buffalo, Lincoln was escorted by former President Millard Fillmore to a hotel, the American House, through a crowd so exuberant that one of Lincoln's military aides suffered a dislocated shoulder.

The next day, he attended services at the First Unitarian Church as Fillmore's guest.


In Albany, Lincoln told the New York legislature in the State Capitol: "It is true that, while I hold myself without mock modesty, the humblest of all individuals that have ever been elevated to the Presidency, I have a more difficult task to perform than any one of them."

Also in town was an actor opening that night as Romeo in "Romeo and Juliet" at the Gayety Theater: John Wilkes Booth.

In 1865, Lincoln's body would lie in state in the Capitol on the way to Springfield.

New York City

A quarter-million New Yorkers lined the streets Feb. 19 as a procession of 35 carriages took the president-elect's party to the Astor House. Lincoln and his family were escorted to a four-room, second-floor suite that overlooked the 95-year-old St. Paul's Chapel.

The next day, Lincoln met with Mayor Fernando Wood, all of the city's aldermen and various other officials in the Governor's Room at City Hall. Then, just before the room was opened to the public, Lincoln found a spot in front of Houdon's bronze statue of George Washington where he would shake the hands of a long line of well-wishers.

"How long will it last?" he asked the mayor.

"Till 1 o'clock. Nearly two hours."

"Two hours of manual labor? I am used to 14 hours a day."

He shook hands at a rate of 3,000 an hour, according to Mary Beth Betts, research director of New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Four years later, Lincoln's body would lie in state just outside the Governor's Room on the way back to Springfield.


Shortly after arriving in Philadelphia on Feb. 21, Lincoln was told of a plot to assassinate him at his train's scheduled stop in Baltimore two days later.

The next morning, he stood in Independence Hall, in the room where the Declaration of Independence had been signed, and told a crowd of Philadelphia officials, "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence." At a flag-raising ceremony outside, Lincoln told the crowd that the nation's "welfare in the future ... is in your hands."

Four years later, Lincoln's body would lie in state in Independence Hall on the way back to Springfield.


Worried by two reports of an assassination plot, Lincoln boarded a train on the evening of Feb. 22, after a speech in Harrisburg, Pa., for a secret trip through Philadelphia and Baltimore to Washington.

At 6 a.m. the next day, an exhausted president-elect arrived in the Washington train depot and made his way to Willard's Hotel on 14th Street.


I start my journey, as Lincoln did, at the Great Western Depot at 930 W. Monroe St. It's a two-story, red-brick structure with a low-slung roof that gives it a squat appearance.

Every generation, it seems, has felt the need to claim the depot as its own with a marker or plaque -- one from 1915 by the Daughters of the American Revolution, another from 1965 by the Springfield Historic Sites Commission, a third from 1966 by the Illinois State Historical Society and a final one from 2008 by the State Journal-Register, which now owns and maintains the site.

Perhaps the building is so markered up because it's on the east side of Springfield's downtown and a bit off the beaten tourist path.

Much more prominent is Union Station, across the street from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum at 211 N. 6th St. However, the Romanesque Revival structure was built in 1898 and had no connection with the 16th president.

Yet, it would be easy enough to think it did. Not only does Union Station have pride of place, but its plaza features two Lincoln statues, and embedded in the central red-brick walkway is a marble circle with the words, "Here I have lived a quarter of a century. And have passed from a young to an old man."

Tolono, Ill.

The mournful whistle of a passing freight train greets me when I arrive at the small, well-tended shrine to Lincoln in Tolono on U.S. Highway 45 (South Pease Street) at West Strong Street, next to a Fuel 24 gas station. Two markers here, one from 1932 by the Daughters of the American Revolution and a second from 2008 by BEST (Businesses Encouraging and Supporting Tolono).

State Line City, Ill.

I miss this hamlet of about 150 souls my first time and have to double back when I realize State Line Road isn't going anywhere else. A marker recalling Lincoln's visit is on a bronze plaque on a boulder on the southeast corner of North Main and East Woodard Streets. Just to the north, a freight train passes.

Xenia, Ohio

The Little Miami Railroad tracks on which Lincoln rode into Xenia are long gone, but the right of way remains as part of the 80-mile Little Miami Scenic Trail bike path. Standing in the early morning light in front of Xenia Station, a replica of an 1880s depot, I am near the spot where Lincoln would have changed trains. On the bike path to the northwest, a local man walks his large, frisky dog.


On the lawn of the Ohio Statehouse, the marker for Lincoln's visit in 1861 and his body's return in 1865 (across from 60 E. Broad St.) is dwarfed by a flock of monuments honoring Ohio heroes, such as two other assassinated presidents, James Garfield and William McKinley.

In addition, Lincoln's time in Columbus is commemorated in one of dozens of small exhibits on Ohio history that fill the basement of the capitol. Indeed, the Greek Revival structure, a working seat of government, is also a well-designed museum, offering guided and self-guided tours of the building, including the House Chambers where Lincoln spoke. I wish I had more time to look around, but the road calls.


Lincoln's commode? Well, maybe.

In the Senator John Heinz History Center at 1212 Smallman St. in Pittsburgh, curator Nick Ciotola shows me an exhibit that has the headboard from the bed at the Monongahela House hotel that Lincoln is believed to have used in his 1861 visit. The bed was long featured in the hotel's President's Room, and so were two other items in the display: a small table and a commode, an old-fashioned portable toilet.

Did Lincoln press the flesh, so to speak, with this very utilitarian piece of furniture? Ciotola can't say for sure, but all three pieces fit the era.

Westfield, N.Y.

In early morning rain, on the northwest corner of East Main and North Portage Streets in Westfield, I find life-size statues of Lincoln and Grace Bedell, the girl who had written him to encourage him to grow his whiskers, at the moment when they got their first glance at each other. A train whistle, sad in the 7 a.m. gloom, rises from the tracks a couple of blocks away.


The First Unitarian Church, constructed in 1833, remains at 110 Franklin St. but doesn't look as it did when Lincoln saw it. After the congregation moved in 1880, the church was converted to offices, and a third floor was added. Today it's well-preserved yet virtually empty, awaiting a decision by Erie County officials on its future use.


In afternoon darkness and chilly showers, the New York State Capitol is an aggressively ugly mix of Romanesque and Renaissance styles, built decades after Lincoln's visit. (Maybe I'm just in a bad mood from all the rain and traffic I've put up with on the New York State Thruway.)

On its grounds, across the street from a Verizon office building at 158 State St., I find a historical marker for Lincoln's visit -- spattered by bird droppings.

New York City

New York City is in the midst of a heavy storm as I make my way up Broadway against brutal gusts to a Staples office-products store at Vesey Street. This was the location of the Astor House, where Lincoln stayed. I don't see a marker. St. Paul's Chapel remains across the street at 209 Broadway, and Lincoln was surely told that George Washington worshiped there on the day he was inaugurated as the first U.S. president.

But Lincoln couldn't have imagined the structures that, a century later, were built immediately to the west of the church property -- the World Trade Center -- and the tragedy that would befall the city on Sept. 11, 2001. I walk to the site and see the hole in the sky.

Then, a few blocks to the north, after passing through two guard posts, I'm in City Hall, entering the Governor's Room, and it seems that here I am closest to Lincoln.

The Houdon bronze is now in the entryway on the first floor. But, in the Governor's Room, John Trumbull's painting of Washington is still on the wall. In front of it is Washington's desk, which was in the same spot when Lincoln's reception was here. Many of the other portraits and most of the furniture in the long, narrow room were here when the president-elect visited.

As I leave the room, I stand for a moment on the spot before its doors where Lincoln's open casket was on view for thousands of mourners in 1865.


When I arrive at Independence Hall at Chestnut and 5th Streets, I walk up the sidewalk in front to a spot next to a statue of George Washington.

There are two flat-to-the-ground markers here -- one recalling Lincoln's raising of the flag at this spot; the other, a speech by yet another assassinated president, John F. Kennedy, 101 years after Lincoln's visit.


Willard's Hotel is long gone. The current Willard Intercontinental Hotel at 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW was built in 1901, according to the marker in front. In August 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- yet one more assassination victim -- was staying at the hotel when he drafted his "I Have a Dream" speech.

The White House is two blocks to the west. And straight down Pennsylvania Avenue, I can see, a mile away, the dome of the U.S. Capitol.