This is the Land of Lincoln. We know that because in
, his name is on license plates, street signs, restaurants, dry cleaners, churches, mugs, marbles, banks, back scratchers and, of course, giant pencils.
, the Great Emancipator, found purpose here, split rails here, went broke here, married here, practiced law here, fathered and buried children here, debated here, and lost and won and lost and won elections here. He is buried here. And half a block from the cemetery gate, at the Lincoln Souvenir and Gift Shop, you can buy a stovepipe hat for $8.50.
What's wrong with this picture? Oh, nothing, really. If the South had won the war, maybe they'd be selling
bobble-head dolls in Biloxi.
Anyway, with the conventions and everything going on, it just seemed a good time to get back in touch with Abe Lincoln--the real one, not the caricature--and there can be no better place to do that than along the roads of Illinois.
Our route will begin and end in
's Lincoln Park, and will include all seven sites of the Lincoln- Douglas debates.
Our first real stop will be where Lincoln first set foot on Illinois soil. After that, the route will make no logical sense at all. I mean, look at that map . . .
But we'll find him, plus some other stuff, and we promise to go easy with the history lesson.
Day 1: Chicago to Charleston
There is a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Park on Chicago's North Side, which is a good thing, considering the park also has statues of Franklin, Grant, Shakespeare,
and Winkin', Blinkin' and Nod.
Lincoln won the Republican presidential nomination on Lake Street and Wacker Drive. That was 1860. Five years later, he would return to Chicago in a funeral train.
Other presidents and would-bes would be nominated later on Halsted Street, which eventually becomes Illinois Highway 1 and, in
, crosses the Lincoln Highway. It soon passes through Watseka, alongside Hoopeston and through Danville--the last Illinois town Lincoln would see from his Inaugural train in 1861 and the first town of any kind that would be seen by Jerry Van Dyke and Zeke Bratkowski.
The highway eases through Paris--ah, Paris--where Lincoln spoke at least twice, to crowds whose sympathies were not entirely with the anti-slavery cause. It continues under Interstate Highway 70, past Marshall and to a side road leading to Lincoln Trail State Park.
Lincoln and his family, emigrating from
, were probably there in 1830. Probably. "They had to come through here somewhere," says park ranger John Shotts.
For a moment, Illinois 1--the former Halsted Street--is the Lincoln Heritage Trail. A few words here about the Lincoln Heritage Trail, and then we'll leave it alone:
It connects Lincoln sites in
, Indiana and Illinois, was formalized in 1963 and signs are still there. What you can't get, except unreadably and unofficially on the Web, is a map of it.
"The Lincoln Heritage Trail Foundation is defunct at this point," explains Tom Vance, a site manager with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, "and they did the maps."
So forget the Lincoln Heritage Trail, although we do pass Lincoln Trail College, which isn't on it.
At Lawrenceville a turn eastward (off Illinois 1) leads to a point where Illinois Highway 33 meets the Wabash River. Here is where Abraham Lincoln--just 21 in 1830--his father, Thomas, his stepmother, Sarah, and other family members crossed from Vincennes, in Indiana, into Illinois. A handsome 1938 roadside memorial--a statue of the youthful Lincoln fronting a bas-relief of others in the travel party--is worthy of the moment.
The Lincolns headed north; our route goes west to Olney (where the car doesn't squish one of the local white squirrels), then north to antique-filled Greenup, where we reconnect with the Lincolns. At the corner of Cumberland and Mill Streets, a hole protected by a plastic cover is a well purportedly dug by young Mr. Lincoln and his dad.
Tip Carlen, who has lived in and near Greenup for all his 80 years, isn't so sure. "I always said, `He was a railsplitter--all he did was carry an axe,'" says Carlen.
In any case, for something like 30 years the well (a reinforced hole, actually) was under concrete (the streets had been widened and sidewalks moved) until promotion-minded townsfolk decided to re-create the thing as a possible tourist attraction.
"And they found the actual well, just by accident," says Carlen. "They poked around down there, and there it really was."
And there, maybe, it really is.
In 1840, Tom Lincoln's brood--without Abe, who had lit out on his own--settled on a farm north and west of Greenup. Abe did visit. The original family cabin was shipped up to Chicago for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, then lost. But a reconstruction and other farm buildings stand on Lincoln Log Cabin Historical Site, near the town of Lerna, which is the site Tom Vance manages.
"What we do here," says Vance, "is show what life was like in 1845 in rural Illinois--that life was labor-intensive and hard. The fact that it's Lincoln brings people in."
A mile away is a small frame house that once belonged to Reuben Moore and his wife, Matilda, Abe's stepsister. In January 1861, when Sarah Lincoln was living there after Thomas' death, the president-elect came by for dinner. The whole family turned out, and most of the neighbors.
This house, not a reconstruction, feels right.
"It was the last family visit that he had," says guide Roy Kubicek. "It was the last time they saw him before he was assassinated."
Not far from the house is Shiloh Cemetery. Thomas Lincoln is buried there, and Sarah. Charleston, our overnight stop, is about 8 miles from all this.
The motel is on Lincoln Avenue.
Day 2: Charleston to Petersburg
The fourth of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates took place on Sept. 18, 1858, at the Coles County Fairgrounds in Charleston. We won't get into debate play-by-play in this narrative, but briefly: Republican Lincoln and Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, seeking election to the
from Illinois, held a series of debates around the state. Crowds, for the time, were huge.
A central issue was expansion of slavery in the territories. Essentially, Lincoln opposed it, while Douglas was open to letting a prospective state's voters choose--but there are nuances.
Each candidate had good and bad moments during the debates. Neither scored a knockout. In the election, Lincoln would win the popular vote; the Illinois legislature (which was how senators were picked in those days) would give the job to Douglas.
But media coverage of the debates (yes, even then) would make Lincoln a national figure. The rest is, well, history.
A crowd of 12,000 watched and listened in Charleston. It was Lincoln's worst performance--see David Herbert Donald's brilliant
, "Lincoln"--but none of that is on the marker in Charleston. In fact, it's a pretty crummy marker: a pink-granite gravestoney thing tucked next to a fairgrounds refreshment stand. It might not even be in the right place.
"They're pretty sure it was there," says Bill Rieve. "It was on the fairgrounds, but they can't say for sure where it was."
The good news is an upgrade is happening. Rieve is a volunteer helping create the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Museum. Corinne Russell, Charleston's director of tourism, is the force. It opened, though clearly a work in progress, on July 22. It's at the fairgrounds (an easy hike from the marker), it's got promise, it's kid-friendly without being kid-patronizing, and it's about time.
"We're the only town of the seven that has a structure explaining the debate," she says. Which, in itself, is pretty amazing.
The drive west to Mattoon, then up Illinois Highway 121 to Decatur, is an intensely green one between fields of soybeans and tasseling corn, through neat villages with main streets that still work and past roadside shops offering live critters for presentation to Lake Shelbyville bass.
Lincoln spent much time in Decatur--some of it working, then sleeping where he worked, in a log courthouse that now sits in the Macon County Historical Museum complex on the edge of town.
"Abraham Lincoln was here," says guide Amy Steadman. "He tried three cases here that we know of."
How did he do?
Steadman breaks into a shy smile. "I don't know," she says, and directs me to the more experienced Donna Sperry, who doesn't know, either.
"I think he won 'em all," says Sperry. "He was good." And she refers me to Chris Gordy, executive director.
"Gosh, I'm really sorry," he says. "We haven't had that question. I'm pretty sure he did win..."
In any case, the courthouse--replaced in 1838 soon after Lincoln's three cases that year--survived four moves before a fifth one brought it here, and it looks fine.
Decatur hasn't done quite as well. Downtown Decatur, though architecturally interesting, today is little islands of hope--a restaurant, a shop, a functional theater--in a sea of neglect.
Says one meter maid: "They either tear it down or leave it empty."
Near the center of all this stands a fine bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln, posed on a bronze stump. On this spot, in 1830 and just out of Indiana, the 21-year-old Lincoln made what is considered his first political speech, a defense of Whig Party candidates.
Past Decatur on Illinois 121 is the very, very quiet town of Mt. Pulaski. On the second floor of its courthouse, built in 1848, Lincoln argued cases, and so did Stephen Douglas. The county seat was moved to the town of Lincoln in 1855, but the courthouse stayed--as a school, city hall and post office.
Then a combination of county roads leads to another village:
"It's `Ay-thens,' not `Athens,'" says a woman who runs a resale shop there. "Hick pronunciation."
It's not much, but during a banquet in 1837 on the second floor of a white frame building, Lincoln and other state legislators, collectively called the "Long Nine" because all were relatively tall, celebrated their success in moving the state capital from Vandalia to
in Lincoln's Sangamon County.
Lincoln proposed a toast at this banquet that today is inscribed on a sign outside what's now a little museum. The toast, trust me, falls short of "...with malice toward none..."
And a few minutes beyond Aythens: Petersburg, surveyed by Lincoln in 1836, burial place of his first love, and today mainly known as gateway to a reborn village that changed his life.
Day 3: Petersburg to Galena
New Salem sprung not long before Abraham Lincoln arrived and didn't last long after he took off for Springfield. It wouldn't have lasted any longer if he had stayed. It just didn't work out for anybody.
It was created for no high purpose other than making its promoters rich, and it didn't. Aside from the usual births, deaths, bankruptcies and broken hearts, no great things happened there; and aside from a brief and remote skirmish called the Black Hawk War it was largely unaffected by forces shaping the destiny of a still-new nation.
In other words, Lincoln's New Salem was not Jefferson's Williamsburg.
Here's the whole New Salem story, delivered with reverent gusto by interpreter Russell Burton portraying Lincoln's onetime partner in a failed store, a boozer named William Berry:
"Lincoln, in 1831 at the young age of 22, a non-skilled laborer, he came. . . . in 1837 at 28, he would leave, a lawyer and a politician. From a railsplitter, he traveled to the
Another costumed interpreter's interpretation: "He was 22 when he came and 28 when he left, and he was a nobody. But let's face it: The only thing we have going for us here is Lincoln."
Which brings the crowds.
"Toward the end of the school year, we get 70 buses a day," says one more interpreter. "Forty, 50 kids on a bus. That's when we go home talking to ourselves."
Today's New Salem is a collection of reconstructed log cabins and stores and gardens scattered about, surrounded by mature hardwood forest. Only one building is original. Interpreters do what they can to give it life and context.
None of the interpreters portrays the young Lincoln; the poor guy would be mobbed if there were one and, if he stayed in New Salem-era character, wouldn't have much to say aside from corny jokes. There is no Ann Rutledge, Lincoln's New Salem fixation, other than the one at rest in Petersburg's Oakland Cemetery.
There is, camouflaged and just outside the village gate, a
Still, there's an appealing gentleness about the place, particularly for those who give it a chance to work rather than rush to the No. 2 Value Meal.
"I love it here early in the morning when no one's here," says an interpreter named Carole, dressed in 1830s style and working on needlepoint. "There's a haze, and a morning dew--and you half expect Abe to walk around the corner."
Back through Aythens and around the corner is Lincoln, the town, the only one named for the man with his permission. The courthouse where Lincoln argued cases in Lincoln was hauled off to Michigan's Greenfield Village years ago by
(and fortunately not by the Columbian Exposition), but a replica was later built on the original site. If fakes don't excite you, you'll be relieved to know it's closed until fall anyway, for restoration.
(There are others around the state with Lincoln's footprints--Beardstown and Metamora come to mind--but we won't get to all of them this time. Sorry.)
Back on the road, our route (eventually Interstate Highway 39) heads north, crosses the Illinois River on the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Bridge and finds Ottawa.
The first debate was here, on Aug. 21, 1858, watched by 10,000 people in what today is
Square. A large yellow rock, placed in 1908, marks the spot; a smaller marker was added for the centennial in 1958.
"A dozen grinning
lifted Lincoln to their shoulders,"
In the same handsome square is, interestingly, a large Civil War memorial. Most of the names on the weathered limestone monument are indecipherable--which seems appropriate, though I'm not quite sure why.
Dixon is next. There was no debate here, but in a small park overlooking the Rock River is an interesting statue of Lincoln dressed as he might have been during his three-month service in the Black Hawk War. He was stationed here for a time, as a 23-year-old, at what was Ft. Dixon--named for John Dixon, who ran the local ferry and, more importantly, a saloon.
The statue is interesting because instead of the usual Lincolnesque pose, here--in a makeshift uniform, saber at his side--he's standing at a kind of relaxed, almost sardonic state of attention.
's Dixon statue, beside his boyhood home, isn't nearly as much fun...
Then north to Freeport. The second debate, in front of 15,000, was here (on Aug. 27). For decades this site was mainly a parking lot with a rock marker, dedicated in 1903 by Teddy Roosevelt. Now the city has made it a little park, complete with statues of Lincoln and Douglas on a platform--all in the shadow of locally venerated Alber's Ice Cream Parlor.
The drive west on U.S. 20 from Freeport to the former lead-mining metropolis of Galena is one of the finest in the state.
Lincoln was in Galena. He spoke there in 1856, from the balcony outside my room. Sort of.
Day 4: Galena to Quincy
The DeSoto House was two stories higher when Abraham Lincoln was out stumping for Republican presidential candidate John Fremont--and in 1858, when Stephen Douglas was out there on behalf of Stephen Douglas--but the balcony was just where it is.
Fires, financial crises, down- and up-sizing have changed the DeSoto a bit. Thirty years ago, when I first stayed here, the bath was down the hall, the bedsprings squeaked, the dresser had cigarette burns, and the only chair in the room was an unquaint wooden rocker.
Today, I look out the window from a first-class room (with bath and cable-TV) and see, on the left, a reconstructed black-iron balcony draped with a flag that says history happened here. And looking straight across Main Street, I see storefronts that, when Lincoln and Douglas looked across Main Street, were storefronts.
Lincoln and Douglas would be surprised by the halter-tops.
The road from Galena to the Quad Cities parallels the
. It is a fine drive, past the bluffs of Mississippi Palisades State Park, through the antique shops of old Savanna and other little towns.
Then to the interstate, and into Galesburg.
The fifth Lincoln-Douglas Debate took place at Knox College on a platform set up along the east wall of "Old Main," itself just 2 years old. "Old Main" is still there and functional; on that east wall, on either side of a doorway, are separate bronze reliefs of Lincoln and Douglas, "whose words these walls echoed October the 7th 1858." The two faces look out on a tree-shaded lawn--as they did 142 years ago.
"Twenty thousand people and more sat and stood hearing Lincoln and Douglas speak while a raw northwest wind tore flags and banners to rags," Carl Sandburg, a son of Galesburg, would write many years later. "They had come from the banks of the cedar Fork Creek, the Spoon River, the Illinois, Rock and Mississippi Rivers....With ruddy and wind-bitten faces they were of the earth; they could stand the raw winds when there was something worth hearing and remembering."
Of the seven debate sites--even on a warm midsummer afternoon--none retains a sense of time and place better than this one.
Sandburg was born here, 20 years after the debate, in a simple white cottage near the railroad tracks. The house is still there, restored and worth a peek, alongside a modest museum. The trains still rattle by, drowning out the sounds of little cat feet...
The route back to the river runs through Monmouth; a quick detour gives a look at Wyatt Earp's birthplace. He was 10 in 1858.
Then more corn and soybeans--How can the world possibly consume all that corn and soy?--and, finally, Quincy.
Day 5: Quincy to Vandalia
The debate took place in Washington Park, a square just up the hill from the Mississippi. The square was once the heart of Quincy. It is no longer a heart that beats. Terrific old commercial storefronts surrounding the square are empty, most of them.
But the park looks fine. So does the marvelous 1936 Lorado Taft bas-relief representing the sixth debate, complete with an old man behind Lincoln, cupping a hand at an ear, straining to catch the words.
On the monument's reverse side are quotes from the debaters; to its right is an older marker, a chunk of granite that says, only, "Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Oct. 13, 1858."
This part of Quincy must have been special--then, and not so very long ago.
The Great River Road leads to Alton. The last of the debates happened here Oct. 15, on a platform built behind City Hall.
City Hall was gutted by a 1924 fire--that's a pretty good story, for another time--and it's gone. All but one of the buildings that bordered the square in 1858 are gone. The roar of trucks on U.S. Highway 67, behind the site, would make it impossible to hear Lincoln or Douglas today.
Statues of Douglas (pointing to the sky) and Lincoln (chin contemplatively resting in hand) have stood on a representation of that stage since 1995. Hovering over the scene is a huge grain elevator with a sign welcoming everyone to Alton. Standing behind Douglas, between U.S. 67 and the Mississippi: the Alton Belle riverboat casino.
So OK, as a re-creation it's not perfect, but it's a whole lot better than it was.
"It was just a damned parking lot," says Don Huber, Alton Township supervisor. "It was a bus stop. For those of us who lived here, it was always Lincoln-Douglas Square--but they stole the damned bronze plaque. What it meant to the city was basically nothing."
Civic (Huber included) and business leaders eventually got together to reclaim the land; red bricks on a courtyard in front of the statues bear the names of residents whose donations made this possible. It should make anyone want to spend a little extra time in Alton, checking out such attractions as a life-size statue of the world's tallest man.
But for us, there is one more debate site.
Jonesboro, about midway between Carbondale and Cairo, is the seat of Union County (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text). It was founded in 1818, which makes it as old as Illinois. The 1857 courthouse, with its additions and canvas awning, looks like a mortuary.
There's not much to Jonesboro; the railroad runs through Anna, next door, so Anna has the McDonald's, Hardees and Taco John's, and Jonesboro has the Dixie Bar-B-Q.
And about a half-mile from the courthouse, in a Shawnee National Forest picnic ground, is a marker.
"This debate," reads a plaque on the quarried boulder, "cast a long shadow on the pages of history."
It was dedicated in 1963, replacing an earlier marker that was defaced.
It is quiet here, except for the yelping of a dog across the road. Picnic tables nearby sit empty in the early evening; a paved track leads into the woods.
"It's nice for walkers," says a woman, 70ish, walking alone toward the trees--which makes its own statement about Jonesboro.
Then I have the grove to myself. It's nice. The crowd was small here on Sept. 15, 1858--about 1,400, smallest by thousands--which seems right for this spot.
But what a shadow.
The route takes us through Salem, birthplace of William Jennings Bryan, then cuts over to U.S. 51, where a bridge carries us over the Kaskaskia River. Downriver, a town by that name was Illinois' first capital.
Our stop will be the second.
Day 6: Vandalia to Springfield
There is no statue of Abraham Lincoln on the grounds of the old state Capitol in Vandalia. There is, instead, an inspiring statue of the " Madonna of the Trail," a tribute to the pioneers who trekked the old Cumberland Road, which ended here.
On one side of the statue's base, almost as an afterthought, is an acknowledgment that Abe was here.
"At Vandalia," it reads, "Abraham Lincoln, member of the Legislature, first formulated those high principles of freedom and justice which gave the slaves a liberator, the Union a savior."
Near the building where all that formulation took place, on 4th Street, is the Liberty Theatre, a one-screen beauty of a small-town movie house that's still in business. Built around 1910, it wasn't called the Liberty until the 1930s.
Before then, it was the Dixie.
Because of Lincoln, then in the state legislature, and his allies, the state capital was moved in 1839 from Vandalia to Springfield, in Lincoln's home county. The population of Vandalia rapidly sank from 900 to 200. Businesses closed. The town just about died.
Maybe that's it.
"It did hurt the town," says Judy Baumann, site superintendent. "But he was elected by the people to look out for his area, and that's what he was doing, That's what we elect our representatives to do."
There wasn't a trace of bitterness in her voice.
"We get asked that question a lot," she says.
What survives is the all-white building itself, and it looks fine, especially at night, when it's bathed in floodlight. Working within it from 1836 to 1839--though his legislative interests tended more toward district economics than great issues--Abraham Lincoln first voiced his opposition to slavery as an institution.
And a Lincoln statue will be on the grounds next spring.
North from Vandalia is Ramsey, hometown of the late Tex ("Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)") Williams, who died in 1985 of--lung cancer. And there's Taylorville, "Christian Capital of Illinois" and home of Taylorville Correctional Center. A prison.
Finally but inevitably, Springfield.
He moved here from Petersburg in 1837, helped move the state capital here in 1839, and maintained an office and home here until the end.
First stop is the old state Capitol. Lincoln had used allusions to a "house divided" in other speeches and other contexts--but the one he made in this building, to kick off his 1858 Senate campaign, in the
"A house divided against itself cannot stand," he said in that room. "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half-slave and half-free."
In that same room, on May 3 and 4, 1865, Lincoln's body lay in an open casketas 75,000 people filed by.
On a desk in the restored chamber sits a stovepipe hat.
Abraham Lincoln worked in an office across the street from the old state Capitol. It's still there. "A lot of action went on in this building," says a guide. We tour it, and though we're glad it has survived--that the floorboards Lincoln made squeak have been preserved for us to make squeak--it is an office.
Except for his time in Washington as a congressman (1847-48), Abraham Lincoln, with Mary Todd Lincoln, lived in a house on 8th and Jackson Streets from 1844 until they moved to Washington in 1861. To be in Springfield and not tour this house is, well, a mistake. Some of his stuff is here. Things of his wife and young sons are here.
His presence is here.
We are on the 5:35 p.m. tour, one of the day's last. At mid-day, Mr. Lincoln's neighborhood is full of people with cameras, pushing strollers and doing what people do on holiday. But we leave the Lincoln house, the streets are quiet. The restored houses--many of them here when the Lincolns lived at 8th and Jackson--look like homes with people in them, not like museum exhibits.
Some people like New Salem.
I like this. Especially now...
Day 7: Springfield to Chicago
The old Great Western Depot at 10th and Monroe Streets was built in 1848. Later in life, it served noble functions--as a beer warehouse, as storage for newsprint for a local newspaper. After a fire in the 1960s, some of the fallen bricks wound up as a
patio, but the rest are where they belong.
On Feb. 11, 1861--a day before his 52nd birthday--Abraham Lincoln said goodbye to Springfield at the old Great Western Depot. It is one of the most honored speeches in American history.
Except there's at least two versions.
This one, in part, is the National Park Service version, which is posted at the depot: "Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young man to an old man..."
Here is the version on a plaque at Lincoln's tomb: "Here I have lived from my youth until I am now an old man..."
Depot: "Now I leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return..."
Tomb: "Today I leave you..." (No speculation on a "return.")
There are more differences. Historian Donald, in his biography, went with the National Park Service version, drawn from "The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln," edited by Roy P. Basler and others.
Hooey, says a guide at the tomb.
"The one we have was the one he gave from the back of the train," he says. "The other one is the one he gave to a reporter, from memory."
The tomb is hallowed ground. Behind the
bust with a nose made shiny by thousands of hands in pursuit of good luck, beneath the familiar obelisk, it is a family tomb: Lincoln, Mary Todd and three of their four sons rest there (Robert is in Arlington National Cemetery). Visitors file by slowly, respectfully.
In the corridors leading to the graves are statues, most of them smaller versions of work we have seen before--including the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Park on Chicago's North Side.
So what did Lincoln really say at that depot?
What we know for sure is this: Whatever he actually said, he stepped back inside the rail car and rode the train through Illinois--through Lanesville and Illiopolis and Decatur; through Cerro Gordo and Sidney, Homer and Danville...
And in April and early May 1865, he rode the train through Illinois--through Chicago and
, Dwight, Pontiac and
; through Lincoln...until he was home.