Lincoln Funeral Car on Display in Duluth
Lincoln’s Historic Artifact and its Link to Duluth
By Kyle Chisholm
Duluth wasn’t much of a place to visit – let alone call home – when Jay Cooke started developing his plan to connect Duluth to the the rest of the country by rail in the 1870s. In fact, only a few hundred people lived here – some of them with familiar last names like Wheeler and Merritt and others with names lost by the flow of time.
Duluth’s population was limited by the city’s age, its finances, and war. Duluth wasn’t very old – having only been established in 1856 – and there hadn’t been much time for development even though Superior, the older of the Twin Ports towns, was already an established industrial port. Furthermore, just one year after Duluth’s establishment, a financial panic struck the country. It’s estimated that this nationwide financial crisis caused nearly three-quarters of the city’s early pioneers to leave town. Then, to top it off, the country found itself embroiled in Civil War four years later. The latter two events caused local investments go up in smoke, development plans to falter, and the working class to leave town.
In 1864, however, President Abraham Lincoln approved Jay Cooke’s plans to connect Lake Superior (eventually via Duluth) to Puget Sound in Washington. By 1869, southbound track was laid from Duluth to link up with northbound tracks from the Twin Cities. Duluth was on the road (or rail) to prosperity partially thanks to Lincoln, and his pen. Of course there was much at stake for President Lincoln at this time and Jay Cooke had big ideas for post-war American prosperity.
Unfortunately, President Lincoln would not live to witness that prosperity. On April 15, 1865 the 16th President of the United States died after being shot by John Wilkes Booth at the Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.
Flashing forward to 2016, I was fortunate enough to attend a private viewing of the Lincoln Funeral Car Replica on display at the Duluth Depot Historic Museum. The train car is housed on track 3 of the Duluth Union Depot’s Lake Superior Railroad Museum for the entirety of the summer. It’s an absolute “must-see” if you have any interest in history… and I’m guessing you do because you’re reading this article.
Inside you will find an exact recreation of the car that carried the President’s body (and that of his 11 year old son Willie who died in 1862 of typhoid fever) on the 1,700-mile journey from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois. Included is a replica of Mr. Lincoln’s casket with the initials A.L. created in a bouquet of flowers laying on top.
“Big deal. It’s just a replica“, you might say. “Why can’t we have the real thing?”
Simple answer… it doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, after President Lincoln’s funeral, nobody thought to save the car for historical purposes. Apparently, once its mission to transport the President’s body was complete, it changed ownership and was overhauled. Eventually the historic car arrived in Columbia Heights, MN, and was destroyed by a grass fire in 1911. The car burned right down to the frame – nothing survived – for the most part.
Then about 6 years ago, a group got together with the intention of recreating the car (see their Facebook page here). Recreating Lincoln’s Funeral Car required extensive research using old photographs, drawings, and written descriptions. A window frame of the original car, removed prior to the fire, was also helpful in its recreation.
The car is as historically accurate as possible. Not only that, the car was recreated in time, last year, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the train ride that took Lincoln home. So…that IS a big deal. As a further bonus, it’s believed that the 2 lanterns hanging from the back of the car today are actually from the original. If you like original artifacts make sure to check them out.
According to the museum attendants working when I visited the exhibit, there is a sad irony to this tale. While the original car – intended to be the Air Force One of its time – was being built, Lincoln did not inspect it. It is said he didn’t feel right about it, considering it was a time of war, and the car was such a luxurious thing.
Coincidentally, the day he was finally scheduled to inspect the car ended up being the day of his death. Tragic. The only time he ever rode inside the rail car was to his final resting place in Springfield.
Had it not been for the heinous act of John Wilkes Booth, perhaps the original Lincoln car would have made it to Duluth with the President aboard. And perhaps Lincoln, upon visiting the city his actions helped link to the railroad network of the U.S., would have come to love Duluth like his colleague Jay Cooke.