ELIZABETHTOWN, Pa. — On April 14, 1865, while watching the play, “Our American Cousin,” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., Abraham Lincoln was shot by disgruntled Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln’s wounded body was carried to a boarding house across the street, where his unusual height required placing him across the corners of a too-short bed. He died on the morning of April 15 without ever regaining consciousness.
Most Americans know this history about the assassination of Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. However, less well known is the story of Lincoln’s last journey by rail from Washington, D.C., to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, arriving on May 3 for burial in Oak Ridge Cemetery.
Several ironies surround the funeral train which bore Lincoln’s casket 1,654 miles to his final resting place. First, according to the website, rogerjnorton.com, the funeral train followed in reverse mostly the same route as the train which had triumphantly delivered Lincoln from Springfield to his presidential inauguration on March 4, 1861.
The repurposing of Lincoln’s presidential railcar into his funeral car offers a second irony.
A further irony described by Lincoln scholar Shannon Brown is that, although the original funeral car burned in a 1911 Minnesota prairie fire, a replica of that 48-foot funeral car, built from its original blueprints, now resides in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, on a property that Lincoln’s funeral train passed across in 1865.
Elizabethtown’s David Abel has acquired both this replica of Lincoln’s funeral car and an operating replica standard gauge Leviathan 4-4-0 steam locomotive, such as those used to pull the funeral train, and brought them to his 275-acre Stone Gables Estate.
The locomotive and funeral car were built by David Kloke, a master mechanic from Elgin, Illinois.
Lincoln’s funeral train had traversed a little over half a mile of what is now Abel’s property, on Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, between its stops in Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Now, Abel is planning to commemorate the 154th anniversary of the Lincoln funeral train’s journey with a re-enactment of its April 22, 1865, passage through this section at the exact time of its original mid-day transit.
Abel has employed steam train expert and engineer Steven Torrico, along with Shannon Brown, to assure the historical correctness of the Lincoln funeral train. The April 22-23 event will feature historic period touches, such as an exact replica of Lincoln’s coffin, uniformed Civil War re-enactors, a band playing music of the era and a replica memorial arch under which the funeral train had passed in nearby Mount Joy. Attendees can also tour the 275-acre Stone Gables Estate’s circa-1860s Ironstone Ranch, as well as the 1877 Star Barn recently relocated there.
Torrico notes that American railroads were a relatively new mode of transportation in the mid-1800s; however, Lincoln embraced rail travel as a means to traverse the country during his presidential campaign, as well as to travel to his inauguration. Along the way, he stopped to give speeches from the rear platform of the train.
Torrico explains that, out of concern for the president’s safety during the turbulent Civil War times, the War Department at its U.S. Military Railroad Yard in Alexandria, Virginia, constructed the first-ever private presidential railroad car; it was christened “United States.” This car contained parlors at its front and rear, with a stateroom in between.
Not seeing the need for such an extravagant amenity, Lincoln took little interest in its construction. However, as it neared completion, he consented to inspect the new railcar. Ironically, said Torrico, that inspection was scheduled for April 15 — the day he died — and thus, Lincoln never saw his presidential car. Instead, Lincoln’s only ride on the “United States” was when it bore his coffin home to Springfield for burial.
Brown said that the new presidential car, with its elegant mahogany woodwork and gold leaf trim, was quickly adapted for its somber new purpose, with its interior and exterior draped in the black crepe of mourning. Some of its furniture was removed to make room for Lincoln’s coffin, as well as the coffin of his son, Willie Lincoln, who had died from typhoid fever in February 1862. According to abrahamlincolnonline.org, Willie’s remains were removed from Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery so he could be buried with his father.
Brown said the funeral train, which changed engines, crews and passengers as it switched through a series of 15 different rail lines, consisted of anywhere from nine to 11 cars, with the funeral car always positioned as the second-to-last car. On board, she said, were two dozen members of the Veteran Reserve Corps, hand-picked by the War Department; they never left the coffin unattended. Others riding the funeral train included an assortment of military officers, dignitaries, railroad executives, and Lincoln’s political and personal friends. Lincoln’s cousin, Dennis Hanks, was the only family member on board until the train’s second-to-last stop in Chicago, where Lincoln’s son, Robert, boarded. Overcome with grief, Mary Todd Lincoln did not attend any of Lincoln’s viewings or funeral proceedings.
According to Wikipedia, after Abraham Lincoln’s body laid in state, first in the East Room of the White House and then in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, his coffin was loaded and the train departed Washington, D.C., at 8 a.m. on April 21 for a stop in Baltimore. The train arrived there at 10 a.m. and left at 3 p.m. after a period of public viewing. Thereafter, the Lincoln funeral train set out for its two stops in Pennsylvania. The first was in Harrisburg, where Lincoln lay in state in the State Capitol building from 8:30 p.m. to midnight and again from 7 to 9 a.m. on April 22. It departed for Philadelphia at 11:15 a.m.
It was on this leg of the journey that Lincoln’s funeral train passed through Lancaster County. With the funeral train traveling at 20 mph, it reached the outskirts of Elizabethtown between 12:05 and 12:15 p.m. on April 22, where it traveled on a section of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s line that was later abandoned. As was the case all along the funeral train’s path, locals knew its itinerary’s times and gathered by the tracks solemnly to show respect for their late president.
Brown reports that everywhere along the train’s route, heads were bowed, men removed hats, and both men and women wept with grief. In rural areas passed through at nighttime, blazing bonfires saluted the train.
The funeral train made 10 stops at major cities between Washington and Springfield; at each location, citizens formed long lines outside the appointed building to file respectfully past the late president’s open coffin. An embalmer and a funeral director on board the train refreshed the corpse for each public viewing.
Stone Gables Estate calculates that Lincoln’s funeral train also passed through 444 villages and small towns. At those locations, Brown said it would slow to 5 mph for safety’s sake, as well as to provide mourners more time to watch the train’s passing. It would’ve done so approaching the Elizabethtown area in 1865.
For further information on the April 22-23 re-enactment at Stone Gables Estate, visit www.stonegablesestate.com or call 717-902-9791. An admission fee is charged.