Low, leaden clouds overhead that Friday morning 158 years ago this month set a somber tone. A locomotive chugged out of Washington railroad depot at precisely 8 a.m. It took two hours to reach Baltimore, just 40 miles away. The little train wasn’t allowed to travel faster than 20 miles per hour.
Everything on it was historic. Not just because of the many Washington and military VIPs it carried. Not because it bore the body of America’s first murdered president home for burial. Even the railcar his remains rode in was significant.
This is the curious tale of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral car.
In 1864, it was decided the country’s chief executive should travel in style. Thirty years after Andrew Jackson became the first president to ride the rails, trains were now the preferred way for travelers. Whenever a president went by iron horse, rail carriers tried to make him feel welcome. For instance, when Lincoln visited Gettysburg, Pa., in November 1863 for his legendary address, the B&O provided a special train for the trip.
That changed in January 1865 when a transportation marvel was unveiled. Called “The United States,” it was the Air Force One of the mid-Victorian era. Fit for a king, it carried the princely price tag of $10,000 ($185,000 today), three times the usual cost. And indeed, it was luxury on wheels. More than a year in the making, it had everything a president could want. More than 42 feet long and nearly 9 feet wide with iron-plated walls for protection, it traveled on 16 wheels that would fit any tracks in the country.
The inside was sheer luxury. State-of-the-art heating, wood paneling with painted sections, etched glass windows, and lush upholstered walls. There was a sitting room, a sleeping room, and a stateroom featuring a gigantic sofa large enough to hold the 6-foot-4 Abraham Lincoln.
Except Lincoln never rode in it. At least, not while he was alive.
“The United States’” first trip was to carry the murdered president home to Illinois. His casket rode in the stateroom alongside his son Willie, who had died in 1862 and was returning to Springfield to rest alongside his famous father.
The train retraced the same route Lincoln had taken to his 1861 inauguration. Services were held in various cities. At stops where heavy spring thunderstorms prevented moving the body, people streamed through the railcar and shuffled by it. Mourners lined the tracks as the train slowly rolled by. In Pennsylvania, one of those watching from a carriage as the funeral car passed was the previous president, James Buchanan. By the time Lincoln was laid to rest on May 4, more than 1 million Americans had done likewise.
But although the 16th president’s life journey was over, “The United States’” strange odyssey was just beginning.
Victorians had a weird obsession with death, and Lincoln’s death was as big as it got. For those who never got to see him in life, the railcar carried a connection to him. Folks were downright fascinated by it.
The government auctioned it off along with other military surplus items in 1866. The Union Pacific Railroad’s VP bought it for his private car and took it to Nebraska. Sometime in the 1870s, it was stripped of its fancy furnishings and served as a regular passenger car. From there, it devolved into sleeping quarters for railroad inspectors and a dining car for work crews.
The Union Pacific eventually realized the car’s importance and displayed it at a big fair in Omaha in 1898. It was such a popular attraction that businessman Frank Snow bought it and showcased it at the granddaddy of them all, the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, where it was a huge hit. From there, he hauled it around the country, hawking it as “America’s Most Sacred Relic.” Americans (at least Northern ones) eagerly handed over nickels and dimes to gape at the decaying link to the Great Emancipator.
A real estate developer in Minneapolis bought it in 1905 to attract would-be homebuyers. The Grand Army of the Republic (a kind of forerunner of the VFW and American Legion) dragged it to Columbus, Ohio, for its 1908 national encampment (and where a local business handed out 300,000 copies of postcards of it to aging Union vets as keepsakes).
Back in the Gopher State, the Minnesota Federation of Women’s Clubs somehow wound up with the decrepit artifact. As the group made plans to fully restore it to its former glory, a prairie fire blew through on March 18, 1911, burning it down to its metal wheels. Such was the desire to have a memento of anything close to Lincoln; souvenir hunters picked up the last bits of charred wood.
To paraphrase Edwin Stanton’s famous words at Lincoln’s passing, “Now it belongs to the ages.”
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