Ask anyone if they've been to Springfield and chances are they'll say, "Yeah, my parents took us there when we were kids to see the Lincoln stuff." Or, "We went down there on a school trip to see the Lincoln stuff."
I sense a pattern here. Which is good, because that's why I've come here--by train--to see the Lincoln stuff.
A trapdoor education
Bill Sherer paints an intriguing picture of Abraham Lincoln (not Abe--a name he detested) as he stands on the third floor of the restored Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, at the corner of Adams and 6th Streets downtown. Lincoln, whose formal education was practically non-existent, had arrived in the state's new capital in 1837 after having studied law on his own for three years to pass the exams required to become an attorney. By 1843, he and partner Stephen Trigg Logan were doing well enough to move to this third-floor space, for which they paid $100 a year, a substantial rent for the time.
Sherer, who works for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which administers this site and several others in this town of 111,000, points out a trapdoor on the floor that was placed there when the building was originally constructed as a warehouse. (Some believe 95 percent of the flooring in this office is from the Lincoln years, so visitors are literally walking in Lincoln's footsteps.) Below the trapdoor was the federal courtroom.
Sherer tells how Lincoln, always looking to improve his knowledge of the law and his courtroom tactics, would prop open the trapdoor with a book, then stretch out his 6-foot 4-inch frame on the floor and observe the courtroom theatrics through the sliver of space.
In 1844, Lincoln formed a partnership with William Herndon that flourished, though it moved into a smaller space at the rear of the building when Lincoln was elected to Congress and moved to Washington from 1847 to 1849.
Lincoln in the Old Capitol
Besides having easy access to the federal courts in the building that housed his office, Lincoln had to walk only across the street to the Old State Capitol, which, from 1839 to 1876, housed all three branches of state government.
The building, which was dismantled and rebuilt in 1966, is rich in Lincoln lore. Like the law offices, most of the furnishings visitors see here weren't in the building originally, but they're from that same time period.
John Kjellquist, a computer consultant with a love for history, volunteers as a guide at the Old Capitol "because I get to go beyond the ropes" that keep visitors from getting too close to history. He notes that period pieces had to be used to furnish the restored building because "when the state moved out, they auctioned off most of the things. Also, you have to remember that in the early days, the state didn't have much money, so people who worked here brought their own furniture."
Perhaps the most authentic room in the building is the Governor's Reception Room, which Lincoln used as his headquarters during the 1860 presidential campaign. Kjellquist points out a woodcut made of the room during that time, which allowed historians to accurately restore this room.
Keeping with campaign practices of the day, in which the people came to the candidate rather than as is done today, it was here that Lincoln sat for long hours talking one-on-one with any citizen, no matter how humble, who had made the journey to hear his views.
On the top floor of the Old Capitol is Representatives Hall, the part of the building that may feel Lincoln's imprint most heavily. In 1858, Lincoln began his Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas in which he addressed the slavery issue and its effect on the country, declaring, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Though Lincoln lost that election, it gave him a national presence and ultimately led him to the White House.
When Lincoln returned from the White House, a little more than four years after he left Springfield and less than a month after the Civil War ended, it was to Representatives Hall, where his body lay in an open casket for two days, while an estimated 75,000 of his fellow citizens somberly filed past.
A few blocks from the Old Capitol, visitors queue up, holding time-stamped tickets, awaiting their designated time to walk through the house that Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln called home from May 1844 until 17 years later when they departed for the White House and Lincoln said prophetically, "I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return."
In this house, three of the Lincolns' four sons would be born, and one would die. Reflecting the hardships of the time, only their firstborn, Robert, lived to adulthood, and it was he who eventually donated the home to the state of Illinois, which in 1972 turned it over to the federal government to be administered by the National Park Service.
Perhaps it's the structured timing of the 15-minute tours due to the thousands who visit each year, or the admonitions to "stay on the gray carpet and please don't touch anything," but the home, to me, has a sterile air to it.
Not that guide Liz Goodman, a young Britisher doing a stint here as a volunteer in preparation for a career wrapped in history, doesn't try to breathe life into the house. She tells us that the parlor, far from a huge room, was once the site of a party to which Mary invited 500, putting arrival and departure times on the invitations. (Fortunately, only 300 showed up.)
It was here, too, that a committee came from Chicago in 1860 to notify Lincoln of his presidential nomination by the Republican Party.
Prior to going upstairs, Goodman delivers a treat to her tour group: "When we go upstairs, be sure to hold on to the handrail. There are two reasons: One, so you don't fall, and two, because it's the only thing in the house I'm going to let you touch that Mr. Lincoln touched."
A few blocks from the Lincoln Home Visitor Center on South 7th Street, visitors can get closer to history at the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum, which Old Capitol guide John Kjellquist listed among "a lot of neat little places in this town."
The last member of the GAR, made up of Union veterans of the Civil War, died in 1956 at the age of 109. The keeper of this modest museum these days is the National Woman's Relief Corps, and more specifically Mary Phelps, volunteer curator who, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, March through November, stands ready to answer questions and point visitors to interesting bits of history they may have overlooked.
Most notable is a somewhat faded, though in remarkably good condition, folded flag that hangs in a modest frame. The flag was taken from the President's Box at Ford Theatre the night of the assassination. One edge of the flag is ripped. . . . . by John Wilkes Booth's spur as he leaped to the stage after firing the fatal shot.
And finally, there is the Lincoln Tomb, about a mile and a half from downtown in Oak Ridge Cemetery. On an unseasonably warm Saturday in early April, it's impossible to keep a lump from forming in my throat as I look upward, taking in the tomb entrance, the single name "Lincoln" chiseled deep into the stone, the sculpture of the man they called the Great Emancipator and finally the granite obelisk that soars 117 feet into a bright blue sky. High atop an adjacent pole, the American flag snaps in heavy wind gusts, making a sound almost like . . . gunshots.
Inside the marble-lined halls of the tomb, small talk fades, and voices are muted, respectful. Subdued lighting gives an otherwordly glow to bronze statues by the likes of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Lorado Taft that note important periods in Lincoln's life.
Then, standing before the large, but simple granite marker, bathed in soft light, you wonder, was there some master plan at work here? Here was a man who many thought was a bumpkin, and, in some ways, he was. But he educated himself and achieved things someone of his meager beginnings had no reason to even dream of. In the process, he made his country look at itself, fight with itself. Nearly destroy itself.
Then, when it seemed the worst was over, and it was time for the local boy who made good to help with the healing, his life ended violently.
In 1836, in a letter to a newspaper editor, the then-27-year-old Lincoln wrote: "Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. . . . I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men,by rendering myself worthy of their esteem."
Behind Lincoln's resting place, the words of his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, measure that esteem: "Now he belongs to the ages."
THE BOTTOM LINE
Weekend expenses for one
Amtrak ........................... $62
Lodging (two nights) ............ $284
Food ............................. $93
Cab to tomb, tip .................. $8
Admission fees, donations ......... $8
Total ........................... $455
IF YOU GO
Springfield is about 200 miles southwest of Chicago on Interstate Highway 55, but I left my car behind and took Amtrak since I was concentrating on just the Lincoln sites, most of which are within a six-block area downtown. My round-trip fare, including a AAA discount, was $61.70, which included Business Class seating from Chicago and a standard Coach seat on the return trip. Without the discount, the cost would have been $73. For the extra $14 that the Business Class seat cost, I got early pre-boarding in a car just for Business Class, a copy of the Tribune, free soft drinks and coffee and a coupon good for $4.50 in the cafe/bar area. Scheduled time to Springfield was about 3 hours and, inexplicably, about 4 hours on the return. There are three trains a day to Springfield from Chicago. For reservations, call 800-USRAIL; www.amtrak.com.
Bring your walking shoes and get a little exercise. After all, Lincoln did lots of walking in his lifetime. If walking isn't your thing, though, from now until Labor Day, a trolley ($10 adults, $9 seniors, $5 ages 5-12 for all day) runs in the downtown and also out to the Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery seven days a week. (After Labor Day the schedule is abbreviated; call 217-528-4100 for details.) The cemetery is probably a mile and a half from downtown. Because I didn't have a car, I took a taxi (what else but Lincoln Yellow Cab, 217-522-7766) to the cemetery, then walked back. There are also city buses, but on weekends the one to the cemetery runs only about once an hour.
I stayed at the Inn at 835 (835 S. 2nd St., Springfield, IL 62704; 888-217-4835; www.innat835.com). The inn was originally built as an apartment building during the Arts and Crafts period, and rooms are very nicely done. My room, which was $129 a night plus tax, wasn't huge, but was worth the price. Period furnishings were well done, and the bathroom included a large whirlpool bath. The bedroom opens out onto a second-floor veranda where you can sit and enjoy the evening breezes. The inn is within walking distance of the Lincoln sites.
There are 10 rooms and suites at the inn, ranging from $109 to $189, which includes a full breakfast.
There are other bed-and-breakfasts in the downtown area, along with hotels. Information is available from the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, listed at the bottom.
Cafe Brio (524 E. Monroe; 217-544-0574) serves lunch and dinner in a relaxed atmosphere, with the menu having Latin and Caribbean influences. I had a terrific Caribbean chicken lunch that included a chicken breast marinated in Jamaican spices, with a tamale pie (like a pancake with corn and chiles), topped by a chipotle cream sauce and with smoky black-eyed peas on the side. Food and an exotic margarita was about $15.
Maldaner's (222 S. 6th St.; 217-522-4313) looks like the place where lobbyists must take legislators to twist their arms in style. This is a white-tablecloth kind of place, with red meat, poultry and seafood on the menu at Springfield--not Chicago--prices. My huge prime rib, which was quite good, was under $20.
The Original Coney Island (210 S. 5th St.) boasts it was "ESTB. 1919" and its sign advertises "Plate Lunches" and "Chilli." A genuine Coney Island dog, onion rings and a soda set me back $4 and some change.
Saputo's (801 E. Monroe; 217-544-2523) is an old-fashioned Italian kind of place that seems to be popular with the locals. I walked in about 8:15 on a Saturday night, and had to wait about 45 minutes for a table. If you're into traditional, heavy Italian meals (think lots of pasta, cheese and meats), this is your kind of place. My baked ravioli was priced at less than $10.
To tour the Lincoln Home National Historic Site you first have to pick up free tickets, which specify the time of your tour, at the visitor center (426 S. 7th St.; 217-492-4241; www.nps.gov/liho). The site is open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round, except from now until September when hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free.
Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices State Historic Site (Adams and 6th Streets; 217-785-7960) is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from March through October and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. from November through February. Visitors are advised to contact the site in advance for hours of operation. Handicapped accessible. Donation suggested.
Old State Capitol State Historic Site (Washington and 6th Streets) has the same phone and hours as the law offices, both of which are administered by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Donation suggested.
Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site (located on the grounds of Oak Ridge Cemetery with entrances on Illinois Highway 29 and Monument Avenue; 217-782-2717) has hours as above. Tomb interior handicapped accessible. Free.
Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum (629 S. 7th St.; 217-522-4373) is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, March through November. Free
Lincoln Depot (10th and Monroe Streets) is where Lincoln gave his farewell address when he left Springfield for the White House. It's open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April through August. Free.
Museum of Funeral Customs (entrance to Oak Ridge Cemetery; 217-544-3480) is an interesting, albeit unusual, museum operated by the Illinois Funeral Directors Association that traces the history of embalming and, as the name suggests, funeral customs from the 19th Century. The exhibits are well done, but the squeamish might not enjoy viewing the embalming tables, instruments, pumps and chemicals that are part of the trade. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1-4 p.m. Sunday. $3 adults, $2 age 62 and over, $1.50 for students 6-17, free ages 5 and under.
There are other Lincoln sites, as well as the Illinois State Museum, Executive Mansion and related sites to visit. For information, request an information packet from the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, 109 N. 7th St., Springfield, IL 62701; 800-545-7300; www.visit-springfieldillinois.com.
Phil Marty's e-mail address is email@example.com.