Reporter’s Notebook: Visiting Lincoln’s Springfield

Reporters Notebook: Visiting Lincolns Springfield

The best thing and the worst thing about Springfield is the same: the location. Middle of Illinois, which is not far from the middle of nowhere. The Illinois capital is about 100 miles from St. Louis, 200 miles from Chicago or Indianapolis. You can fly there, but probably not on a plane with much overhead bin space. More likely you will arrive at the end of a long car ride, having enjoyed wide vistas of flat prairies.

So the waves of change and tempests of progress that storm through more cosmopolitan places register in Springfield as the merest ripples and breezes. If this isn’t a place that time forgot, it is certainly a place that occasionally slips time’s mind. The dominant feature of the skyline is the Hilton tower, 30 stories high. It was built during the Nixon administration, and still feels like a hotel where Howard Hughes might be padding around with Kleenex boxes on his feet up on the top floor.

What’s great about this isolation is that Springfield still feels a bit like the city where Abraham Lincoln once strode the streets. There was more horse dung and dust then, to be sure. But nowhere else can you get such an intimate glimpse of the man in this bicentennial year of Lincoln’s birth.

It starts with the impressive job that the National Park Service has done with the Lincoln home, at the corner of Eighth and Jackson streets. If you stay at the Hilton, or the nearby Abraham Lincoln Hotel, you’ll have only a short walk to the house where Abe and Mary Lincoln raised their boys from 1844 until they left for Washington in 1861. The handsome clapboard two-story has been meticulously maintained by the Park Service, but that’s only the beginning. The federal government also acquired four square blocks surrounding the Lincoln home and — after removing all post-Lincoln construction — is restoring the neighborhood to its mid-19th-century look.

You see the home of the druggist and the house of the leather dealer, and the home of the state auditor and the little house where the divorced schoolteacher lived. You see where the Lincolns’ babysitter trudged home after a long stretch with the rowdy boys, and you see the spot where stood the home of Jamison Jenkins, a conductor on the Underground Railroad. It takes no great imagination to picture the enthusiastic parades and rallies that flowed through this street during Lincoln’s historic campaigns.

Tours of the Lincoln home are free, but you need a ticket from the nearby visitor’s center. The interior is wonderfully accurate, thanks to sketches of the family home prepared in 1860 for magazine readers eager to know more about their new president. In fact, much of the furniture is authentic — you can see the chairs Lincoln sat in, the desk he wrote on, the stove he stoked in winter. Mary used a chamberpot; Abe preferred the outhouse.

The home exudes a warm, middle-class prosperity, and in a small house across the street from the Lincolns, you can follow the steady rise of the young lawyer and family man. When Lincoln bought the place at Eighth and Jackson in 1844 — the first and only home he ever owned — he was a 35-year-old politician with a wife and a baby, and the house was a modest story-and-a-half. As he grew wealthier, Lincoln literally blew the roof off the place, extending it to a full two stories. Now there was space for big parties, a spacious guest room, and room for a live-in maid.

He’d come a long way from the log cabin.

From the home site, it’s an easy stroll past the church where Mary sought solace after losing a son, then onto Sixth Street. At the corner of Sixth and Adams is a replica of the law offices of Lincoln & Herndon, and across the street is the Old State Capitol .

Nearby is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, a modern, multi-media complex that houses one of the best collections of Lincoln materials in the world. As Illinois State Historian Thomas Schwartz explained to me recently, Springfield had the good fortune to have a Lincoln buff serving as governor during the Great Depression. He budgeted for acquisitions at a time when prices were low. “We were able to collect material at a time when there was not much interest and not much money.”

As a result, though the Library of Congress in Washington is the official repository of Lincoln’s papers, the library in Springfield has more items written in Lincoln’s own hand.

But if the library is a mecca for Lincoln scholars, the museum, opened in 2005, is pitched to appeal to ordinary visitors. Cannons boom at appropriate moments. Life-size figures of the Lincoln family stand poised in the light-filled central space. The late Tim Russert narrates a news report on the 1860 campaign, complete with television ads for Lincoln, Douglas, Breckinridge and Bell.

Behind the glitz, however, is a solid and reasonably full account of Lincoln’s life and achievements, with an admirably nuanced examination of the agonizing politics involved in emancipating the slaves. Perhaps the most moving artifacts on display are also the simplest — plaster casts of Lincoln’s craggy face and huge, rough hands, made by a sculptor during Lincoln’s life. Somehow, these more than any other exhibit capture the power and the gentleness, the strength and the fatigue, that defined Lincoln as president.

There are other Lincoln sites in and around Springfield well worth seeing — the train station where he gave his moving farewell address to his friends and neighbors; the home of Ninian Edwards, where the Lincolns met and courted; the reconstructed village of New Salem, where Lincoln launched his political career. Springfield also has been commemorating the 100th anniversary of a brutal race riot that terrorized the city’s black residents in 1908.

We learn from negative, as well as positive, examples.

Lincoln’s tomb looms over the Oak Ridge Cemetery not far from downtown Springfield. This massive granite edifice, decorated with statues cast from melted cannons and topped by an obelisk rising 117 feet, is a testament to the enormous place Lincoln occupies in America’s heart and memory. As if to remind us, though, of Lincoln’s genius for understatement, his burial marker inside is starkly simple — a name and two dates.

The last word on Abraham Lincoln appears on a wall above the marker, engraved in dark marble. “Now he belongs to the ages.” Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s secretary of war, said it when his leader died at dawn on an April day in 1865. But it is never and nowhere more true than in Springfield on the day you make your visit.