On April 21, 1865, a train carrying a coffin pulled out of the Washington, D.C., train station. The train was bringing United States President Abraham Lincoln's body to be buried in Springfield, Illinois.
In 2015, I retraced its route to Springfield, to write this article.
Early on in my journey, I found a railroad spike in the weeds along the tracks. I knew it was probably only a few decades old, but still, I picked it up and kept it in my car. I liked its look, both industrial and homemade, rough and with sharp angles—Lincolnesque. It reminded me of the United States' great "railroad president."
In a sense, Lincoln and the new technology grew up together. The 1830s marked the first decade of major U.S. railroad construction. Lincoln was a 27-year-old state legislator and was already pushing for the construction of new train lines. He later worked as a lawyer for the Illinois Central Railroad and other companies.
In 1861, when he went to Washington for his first inauguration, Lincoln journeyed by rail. He rode through the Midwestern and Northern states, traveling farther to reach the White House than any president-elect before. Since Lincoln's election in November 1860, seven southern states had already left the Union to form the Confederacy. Along his trip, Lincoln made speeches to reassure his fellow Americans that the nation would be saved.
But the trip itself also stood as a powerful statement of the union. About 48,280 kilometers (30,000 miles) of track had already been laid down. It was a sign of the industry that helped the North leap ahead of the South. There were also plans to build a train connecting the United States' East Coast to its West Coast.
The Somber Second Journey
Four years later, the funeral trip was designed to make people remember his earlier journey.
During the funeral train's second day of travel, it crossed the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania. More than 150 years ago, those tracks had been used by enslaved people riding to freedom. During the Civil War, trains carrying wounded soldiers often passed here as well.
Part of that stretch still survives. It has recently been repaired for a copy of an 1860s train. It is called Steam Into History and carries tourists over 16.1 kilometers (10 miles) of track. Riding aboard the locomotive, I thought of how new and jarring it must still have seemed 150 years ago.
We chuffed noisily through the Pennsylvania fields. We passed an old man with a hoe in a vegetable patch, a group of waving kids, and a teenager holding up his iPad to record video.
On the 1865 trip, two cars made the entire journey. One of those two was the "officers' car" and carried officers and members of the Lincoln family. The other was the funeral car itself and was called the United States. The car had actually been designed to carry the living Lincoln, but he rode in it only after death.
The car was a presidential office on wheels and was finished in 1865. For the funeral trip, it was draped in heavy black cloth fringed with silver. The United States also carried the body of Willie Lincoln, the third son of President Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln. He had died in Washington in 1862, age 11, and was going to be reburied alongside his father.
The train passed through towns and villages, usually in darkness. As it passed, people kneeled by the side of the tracks reciting prayers and hymns.
Railroads Impacted Many Lives
Especially in the Midwest, ordinary Americans felt a connection with Lincoln. Like him, they had suffered through four years of war. This emotional journey was tied to memories of the railroad too. At local stations, many saw sons and brothers for the last time. It was there that civilians brought the bandages, clothing, food, and flags for the war effort. It was here that the first news of defeats and losses arrived, carried by the telegraph lines that ran along the tracks.
Most of the trains (and all of the telegraph lines) have disappeared from most of the Midwest, and people now travel by cars. Many old villages grew up around rural depots and are now shrinking, as well.
In Elgin, Illinois, I met David Kloke, the master mechanic who built the replica locomotive. He was now completing a full-scale version of the funeral car. The original burned in a prairie fire in 1911, but Kloke studied the original photographs and tracked down fragments of wooden trim. "It's going to be beautiful, a dark maroon, almost chocolate color, with gold leaf," he told me.
On May 2, 2015, Kloke's United States was in Springfield for a reenactment of the Lincoln funeral. An empty coffin was unloaded onto a horse-drawn hearse and driven to the old Illinois State House. It was taken to Oak Ridge Cemetery the next day.