A new museum in Springfield, Illinois, uses modern technology to take visitors into the past as they explore the life of America’s 16th president.
By Kelly Pucci
Some towns honor their local hero with a bronze plaque or historical marker, but Springfield, Illinois, celebrates the life of its most famous citizen in grand style. Who is Springfield’s favorite son? He is a man of humble means who led a nation divided by war. He is President Abraham Lincoln.
Mr. Lincoln spent most of his adult life in Springfield as a young husband, father, and small-town lawyer, before his election to the office of President of the United States. After his assassination, a shocked nation mourned, reaching out to the solemn funeral train as it trudged 1,654 miles from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, his final resting place.
Today, Abraham Lincoln’s presence is evident through restored buildings that figured prominently in his life: the Lincoln family home (the only house he owned), his law office, the church in which he worshipped, and the old capitol building, where he delivered his famous “House Divided” speech.
Yet it is Springfield’s newest tribute to President Lincoln, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, a $90 million complex, that most keenly brings his legacy to life. It opened in April 2005.
Visitors who file into a small theater for a 15-minute introductory program stop their impatient chat when a live actor walks across the stage and conjures up wispy Civil War-era ghosts that appear and fade on his command. The special effects continue as President Lincoln’s quill magically rises from an old wooden table and writes Mr. Lincoln’s famous words in the air. As the actor dons a Civil War coat, holographic images transform the stage into a battlefield and the actor reveals that he is a soldier who died at the Battle of Vicksburg (Mississippi) in 1863. In an instant the actor becomes a ghost in the air, joining hundreds of thousands of other ghostly soldiers who fought in the Civil War.
In a second theater, smoke billows above the audience as multiple cameras project violent Civil War images onto three floor-to-ceiling movie screens. Strobe lights flash and electronically controlled seats shake as unseen “cannons” explode.
Rooms with small displays of personal items “” eyeglasses that Lincoln absentmindedly left at a friend’s home, a battered leather portfolio bearing the president’s name in well-worn gold lettering, a pair of wrinkled white kid gloves carried in the president’s coat pocket on the night of his assassination “” provide a personal glimpse into the life of a man who became an icon.
Lincoln’s experience is chronicled in many new ways. The presidential campaign of 1860 is explained in today’s terms, with mock TV election coverage. The complex circumstances surrounding Lincoln’s decision to emancipate slaves is explored, as is the death of his young son, Willie, who passed away while Lincoln was in office.
Even the museum’s atrium, which connects the theaters with walk-through replicas of White House rooms and a reproduction of the legendary log cabin where Abraham Lincoln spent his early years, attracts crowds of visitors who pose with life-size silicone-latex figures of the Lincoln family or the likeness of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, who skulks nearby.
The entrance fee (adults, $7.50; seniors, active military, and students $5.50; children 5 to 15, $3.50) includes admission to all shows and exhibits. The museum is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Wednesday from 9:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.alplm.org or call (800) 610-2094 or (217) 782-5764.
Across the street from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, which opened in October 2004. It contains millions of artifacts from the Lincoln era and is open to the public, but its primary purpose is to serve serious researchers and scholars.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum offers motorhome parking in a garage on Sixth Street. Use this as your base for exploring Springfield and walk a few blocks to other Lincoln sites, or take public transportation. Look for old-fashioned red trolleys or dark blue city buses marked “SMTD Historic Sites Bus Route.” Taxis are also available throughout the downtown area.
The museum and library are but the start of Springfield’s tributes to its favorite former resident. The Lincoln Home, now a National Historic Site, where the family lived for 17 years, stands in a four-block historic neighborhood managed by the National Park Service. Like typical American homes, the house was renovated as decorating styles changed and expanded to accommodate a growing family. With Mary Todd Lincoln as mistress of the house, the modest one-and-one-half story cottage purchased from a preacher in 1844 emerged as a grand two-story home boasting two parlors, maid’s quarters, four bedrooms, a sitting room, a dining room, and a kitchen. In the heavily draped formal parlor, members of the Republican Party asked the young Illinois congressman to run for president.
According to the wishes of Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert, who donated the family home to the public, tours of the Lincoln Home are free. Stop at the visitors center for your ticket to take the ranger-guided tour.
Though born a Baptist, Abraham Lincoln often accompanied his wife and sons to Sunday service at the First Presbyterian Church near his home. It’s still an active church, but visitors are permitted to quietly view Pew No. 20, which the Lincoln family rented for $36 annually, as well as stained-glass windows designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Unlike today’s commuters, who travel many miles from home to work each day, Abraham Lincoln walked to his office. It is just three blocks from the Lincoln Home to the small brick building where Abraham Lincoln practiced law, first with partner Stephen T. Logan and later with William Herndon. Forty-five-minute guided tours of the building include a look at Lincoln’s cluttered office, papers strewn across his desk. Admission is free, but donations are suggested.
Although modest, the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices occupy a prime location directly across from the Old State Capitol, where Mr. Lincoln spent long hours in the library studying law books and pleading cases before the Illinois Supreme Court. It served as the state’s center of government from 1839 to 1876. Self-guided and guided tours of the capitol are available throughout the day. Of particular note inside the restored Greek Revival-style building are a campaign banner promoting Abraham Lincoln for U.S. President and Hannibal Hamlin as his running mate; the desk Mr. Lincoln used as an Illinois congressman; and Representatives Hall, where the president’s coffin was placed for viewing. It was also in this building, on June 16, 1858, that Abraham Lincoln delivered his eloquent “House Divided” speech to the Illinois legislature, stating that the United States must not be divided into two republics.
Admission to the Old State Capitol is free, but donations are suggested.
A few blocks southeast of the Old State Capitol, Mr. Lincoln delivered his final speech to the people of Springfield in February 1861 as he departed by train for Washington, D.C., and his presidential inauguration. Sadly, just four years later his body was brought back to Springfield’s Great Western Depot following the same route. Renamed the Lincoln Depot, the restored railroad station is open to the public from April through August. Admission is free, but donations are suggested.
Abraham Lincoln was laid to rest in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery alongside his wife and three of their four children: Edward, William, and Thomas (affectionately known as Tad).
As visitors gather outside the 117-foot-tall granite tomb, many rub the nose of a bronze bust of Mr. Lincoln for luck, but inside the darkened chamber, the mood turns somber. Hats are removed, cell phones turned off, and voices lowered as an impassioned guide shares some of the history of the tomb, including how an attempt to rob the grave led to son Robert’s decision to re-bury the coffin 10 feet deeper and encase it in two tons of concrete.
Admission is free, but donations are suggested. Oak Ridge Cemetery, the nation’s second-most visited cemetery, is located approximately two miles from downtown Springfield and is accessible by trolley and by using the SMTD Historic Sites bus.
More than 1 million tourists visit Springfield annually, many stopping only long enough to see the Lincoln sites, but Springfield offers so much more.
The “new” Illinois State Capitol, which housed its first legislative session in 1877, is the place to observe modern-day politics. As current state congressmen and congresswomen debate weighty issues, visitors peer from the balcony hoping to overhear juicy details whispered off the record. The “new” capitol building is located a short walk from the Lincoln Home and is a stop on the trolley and SMTD Historic Sites bus routes. Admission is free.
Illinois architect and Oak Park (Chicago) resident Frank Lloyd Wright was no stranger to Springfield. Called downstate by Springfield’s eccentric socialite Susan Lawrence Dana in 1902, Mr. Wright used the opportunity she gave him to hone his famous Prairie Style architecture using nearly limitless funds. The 35-room Dana-Thomas House is considered one of the best preserved examples of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, with 250 original art glass windows and doors, 200 original glass lamps and skylights, and more than 100 pieces of original white oak furniture designed by Mr. Wright. You can take a free, guided 90-minute tour to view it yourself (donations are suggested). The Dana-Thomas House is located a short walk from the “new” capitol building and is a stop on the trolley and SMTD Historic Sites bus routes.
Even Springfield’s food is famous. Viewers of cable food shows will recognize Springfield’s high-cholesterol signature dishes: the Horseshoe and the Cozy Dog. The Horseshoe consists of two or three slices of toasted white bread topped with a ham steak or hamburger patties, then covered with fries and smothered in cheese sauce. This calorie-laden sandwich is on the menu at several restaurants downtown, including Maldaner’s, a favorite haunt of local politicians since 1884. Cozy Dogs, corn dogs on a stick, are served exclusively at the Cozy Dog Drive In on Sixth Street (old Route 66) near the outskirts of town.
As the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday approaches (in 2009), folks everywhere will be thinkin’ about Lincoln. Visit Springfield, Illinois, and do some thinkin’ yourself.
More information about the attractions mentioned in this article is available from:
Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau
109 N. Seventh St.
Springfield, IL 62701
Double J Campground and RV Park
9683 Palm Road
Chatham, IL 62629
Approximately 15 miles from Springfield. Open April 1 through October 31.
Illinois State Fair Campgrounds
c/o Non-Fair Events Office
P.O. Box 19281
Springfield, IL 62794
Located on the state fairgrounds near the Lincoln Tomb. Open year-round (including rest rooms); water hookups are available April 1 through October 31.
Lincoln’s New Salem Campground
New Salem State Historic Site
15588 History Lane
Petersburg, IL 62675
Located approximately 20 miles from Springfield at Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site, where visitors tour a reconstruction of the village where Abraham Lincoln worked in the post office and as a clerk. Site and campground both open year-round.
Mr. Lincoln’s Campground & RV Center
3045 Stanton Ave.
Springfield, IL 62703
Riverside Park & Campground
4105 Sandhill Road
Springfield, IL 62702
Located in a city park near the Sangamon River.
Sangchris Lake State Park
9898 Cascade Road
Rochester, IL 62563
Located approximately five miles from Springfield. Open April 1 through mid-January.
4320 KOA Road
Rochester, IL 62563
(800) 562-7212 (reservations)
(217) 498-7002 (information)
Approximately eight miles from Springfield. Open April 1 through November 1.