Exploring the Land of Lincoln by Train

Writer Jen Nilsson explores the legacy of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, where Lincoln began his political career.

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by Jen Nilsson in History
June 08, 2017

Jen Nilsson, courtesy of Lens of Jen

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“To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.”

-       President Abraham Lincoln

 

As a bona fide city dweller and proud Chicagoan, I don’t have a car. Sometimes my lack of vehicle ownership and general dislike of driving makes me a feel a little trapped in the city. However, the ease of Amtrak leaves me with no excuse not to hop on a train and explore all that Illinois has to offer.

And that’s just what I did when I spent a Saturday walking in the footsteps of another Illinoisan who never owned a car: President Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln Service

The Lincoln Service on Amtrak got me from Union Station in downtown Chicago to Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield in three hours flat. After dropping my bags at the President Abraham Lincoln Hotel, I walked to the welcoming beer garden of Obed & Isaac’s to properly fuel up for a day of sightseeing in Springfield.

That meant a horseshoe sandwich—an open-faced delicacy that consists of a hamburger patty, French fries, and cheese sauce all piled on top of thick-sliced bread. The sandwich originated in Springfield, making it a fitting start to my adventure. After polishing it off with a microbrew, I was ready for bed and a good night’s sleep before my big day of touring.

Breakfast with a View of the Past

The next morning, I was ready for some history.

I skipped the ever-present line at Starbucks for a cappuccino and blueberry pancakes at Café Andiamo, a hangout for locals. I posted up near a window and looked across the street at the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, where Lincoln and his law partners prepared for the hundreds of cases that they argued in front of the Illinois Supreme Court just across the way.

It’s also said that Lincoln, who did not believe in “parental tyranny,” let his sons Willie and Tad run wild about the office, something that likely caused a few arguments between Lincoln and his law partner, William Herndon (who later served as Mayor of Springfield).

Lincoln Home

Any story of Lincoln in Springfield must begin at the home he shared with Mary Todd Lincoln for 17 years—now a national historic site. As I walked the four blocks from his office to the small cottage on the corner of Eighth and Jackson, I reflected on how many times he must have taken that very same stroll.

Ranger Lana, my tour guide at the Lincoln Home, informed me that Lincoln would often take home stray cats he encountered along that walk home. She shared many such factoids in an information-packed tour of the Greek Revival home, which looks about 85 percent the same as it did in 1860.

Squeezing through the narrow hallways, I was flabbergasted to learn that the Lincolns would host up to hundreds of people in only a dozen rooms. And eyeing the quaint size of most of the furniture, I think I figured out why Lincoln, who was 6'4", reputedly spent so much time on the floor playing with his children.

The upstairs of the home housed a few interesting tidbits, such as the sleeping quarters of the “hired girl”—an archaic term for the women affluent families often employed as domestics. There were 16 hired girls in the 17 years the Lincolns spent there, all of whom received about $150 per week and free room and board. I also enjoyed the kids’ room, where a basket full of marbles sits at the foot of the bed. The marbles were found buried in the backyard, a token likely left behind by the mischievous Lincoln sons.

Exploring the Neighborhood

I took the long route to the Old State Capitol, the place where Lincoln argued so many Illinois Supreme Court Cases and spent eight years in the Illinois House of Representatives. To fully appreciate the Old State Capitol, it makes sense to take in the current Illinois State Capitol—a beautiful and towering building that is visible from nearly every street in Springfield.

Back near the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, I was literally pulled by the delightful smells into Del’s Popcorn Shop where Sadie Davis has been dishing up popcorn and ice cream for 16 years. While I was at it, I puttered around the Studio on 6th, a local artists co-op where the artists receive 100 percent of the proceeds from any sale, and bought a postcard at Old Capitol Goods, where Winston the dog holds court over the Old State Capitol Plaza.

Old State Capitol State Historic Site

In Lincoln’s Springfield days, the hub of the city was on Sixth and Adams. It was here at the Old State Capitol where Lincoln gave his famous “House Divided” speech and here where his body was brought to lie in state before being taken to his final resting place in Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Organized tours are available at the reconstructed Old State Capitol, but I was lucky enough to get an impromptu and informal tour by super volunteer Francie Staggs, who is a walking encyclopedia on the building and all its goings-on.

Francie showed me where Lincoln sat when he served in the House of Representatives and where his body lay during his memorial service. She pointed out that the clock on the wall stays frozen at 7:22, the exact time the President took his final breath. 

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

My next stop was the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, located just two blocks from the Old State Capitol. While this isn't a place where Lincoln would have physically walked, it is an immersive journey through his life, giving you an idea of what it was like to walk in his immense shoes.

In particular, the exhibit that explores the Lincoln family’s White House years is like an auditory ordeal, as all sides of the room erupt in a cacophony of polarizing voices quoting many of the criticisms that Lincoln faced. Listening to those criticism, it’s difficult to imagine how he could have written with so much clarity and acted with so much decisiveness.

The War Gallery tells the stories of everyday men and women who lived during the Civil War in a personal and moving way, and the fascinating “Ghosts of the Library,” in which a convincingly lifelike hologram discusses the preservation of historic artifacts, makes even the tedious process of archiving sound like fun.

For me, the highlight of the museum is the exhibit that explores the pre-presidential years, because this is where you learn about the events that shaped the way Lincoln saw the world. You enter the gallery through a log cabin—a replica of the Kentucky cabin in which he was born—and wind your way through his journey as a boy, a husband, and eventually a father, lawyer, and politician on his way to making history.

Edwards Place

It's said that Lincoln arrived in Springfield in 1837 as a self-taught lawyer carrying all his belongings in just two saddlebags. I reflected on this as I walked the half-mile from the museum to my next stop at the historic home of Benjamin and Helen Edwards. Did Abe ever feel like he was all alone?

Come to think of it, Lincoln's rise through the social and political ranks might not have even been possible were it not for Mary Todd, who arrived in Springfield two years later. Mary came from a prominent background, so the couple spent a lot of time at the parties hosted by the Edwards family in their fabulously decorated home, which was the social hub of Springfield in the days of the Lincolns' courtship.

I took a guided tour of the restored home to get an idea of what the social scene was like—and to learn a little more about Mary, whose sister Elizabeth Todd married into the Edwards family. Here you can see the “courting couch” where Abraham and Mary sat (though the couch was located in a different home) and the piano that played the music at their wedding.

Lincoln Tomb

The last stop on my tour was Oak Ridge Cemetery, the final resting place of Abraham Lincoln. I walked the mile from Edwards Place to the Lincoln Tomb through a lovely neighborhood called Lincoln Park.

Once I arrived at the tomb, I had time to sit, reflect, and watch as people rubbed the nose of Lincoln for luck.

There is some question over the exact words that Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said when Lincoln died on April 15, 1865, but the words inscribed on the tomb are a fitting tribute to a man who accomplished so much in such a short period of time: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

After a full day of following in Lincoln's footsteps, I didn't feel like walking anymore—or doing without modern conveniences. I hailed an Uber back downtown, grabbed my bags, and boarded the 4:56 p.m. Amtrak train to Chicago.


Tip: Throughout Springfield “Looking for Lincoln” signs tell the story of the Lincoln family. Stop along the way to learn more.

Tip: If you have time, visit the Dana-Thomas House after visiting the Lincoln Home and before strolling by the Capitol. The home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is worth the detour.

Tip: Grab lunch at the ALPLM café for a quick and tasty bite that will keep you on schedule.

Tip: On the walk from the ALPLM to Edwards Place, check out the old train depot at Union Station. No longer in use, it is restored to look much like it did when the Illinois Central Railroad opened the station in 1898.

Tip: The walk from Edwards Place to the Lincoln Tomb is a nice one-mile stroll, but it is possible to call an Uber.


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