New Life in the Lincoln Depot
Will tourists arrive where Lincoln departed?
August 4, 1978
A familiar saga in Springfield. Enterprising or history-conscious citizens muster private resources to buy and restore a building associated with Abraham Lincoln, in the certain hope that tourists will flock to see it in sufficient numbers to pay the bills. The work achieves only a dubious authenticity, the public proves indifferent, the project fails. The building is rescued, usually more than once, by institutions or philanthropists who equip the building with the latest in crowd-drawing audio-visual technology, only to learn again that tourists resist being taught by whatever means.
Since this piece was written, the train depot in Springfield from which Lincoln made his farewell in 1860 went through another change of ownership after the failure of the venture described here, and was remodeled yet again to become a private law office with an historic site attached.
A half-dozen adults clump in through the narrow entranceway, blinking their eyes at the sudden darkness, trying to recall where they are. "I'll bet you anything they say they're one family," says the middle-aged woman quietly. It usually costs a dollar a head for adults to get in to the newly reopened Great Western depot at Tenth and Monroe streets in downtown Springfield, but families get in for a flat $2.00.
The middle-aged woman is Molly Becker and she runs the place. She's learned a lot about tourists and tourism in the few weeks since the restored depot—popularly called the Lincoln depot—has been in business. The depot is the spot from which Abraham Lincoln bade Springfield farewell before his departure for Washington in 1861, and from whose platform he made his graceful farewell address. Like many Lincoln sites in the more careless past, it was ignored until the profitability of Lincoln became established. Then in 1965 a group of local entrepreneurs spent $57,000 fixing the place up and opened it as a museum. It nearly burned down in 1968, foundered, and was acquired eventually by Copley Press Inc., whose State Journal-Register production building looms nearby. The Springfield Copley paper likes to boast of its connection with Lincoln, whose likeness still appears on its masthead. The paper claims that its late owner, James S. Copley (who had a "deep and abiding sense of the need for the preservation of American historical sites") wanted the paper to be identified with the depot with which it shares the block. The new production building was built of brick like the depot, to "compliment" it.
In the meantime Sangamon State University was busy with a $262,000 project formidably titled, "Lincoln's Thought and the Present: A Program for Historical Site Interpretation, " known more economically as the Lincoln sites project. Underwritten by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the project's aim was to "reveal important links between present and past" by producing series of pamphlet essays, brochures, maps and, most important, mixed media programs to help illuminate the six major Lincoln sites to the touring public, who in the past left the city poorer but scarcely wiser than when they entered it.
One of the six sites was the Great Western Depot. A proper restoration was paid for out of a $40,500 fund, $30,000 of which was donated by Copley Charities. Another $27,900 was used for the slide and sound show. In the fall of last year Copley Press Inc. transferred maintenance and operation responsibilities to the Sangamon State University Foundation which in turn transferred them to Molly Becker. Becker is a doyenne of Springfield's historical establishment; as a mover of the Abraham Lincoln Association, for example, she was instrumental in the development of the $585,000 Sound and Light program at the Old State Capitol, the third of the mixed media interpretative shows (the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices had the first, Lincoln's home the second) now considered essential for the most modern remnants of the past. So it was probably foreordained that she wold be standing on this typical day in a train station waiting room next to a new/old cast iron stove escorting glassy-eyed tourists through what many of them probably can't remember as their third or sixth or sixth-hundredth Lincoln shrine of the day.
When Lincoln stood in a February drizzle making his goodbyes, the depot was only a story tall (actually a story and a half; an addition was built in the, 1880s raising it to two full stories); thus the restoration is, like the law offices on Sixth Street, the Old State Capitol, and New Salem, evocative but not exact. The problem is money. "Originally the platform was at ground level," Becker notes, referring to the elevated concrete platform that abuts the depot's eastern side, "but they couldn't afford to lower it. We were nickeled and dimed to death, what with fixing the air conditioning and one thing and another."
When the museum-makers restored the depot in the '60s they did so "not with pure historical thoughts in mind," according to Becker. There were dioramas, which were harmless enough, as were the life-size figures of mannequins of Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln that stood in one of the rooms. But the owners had parked a stagecoach on the second floor, which gave the place a certain air of haphazardness.
The biggest expense was for extending partitions, installing wood stoves, rebuilding some floors, buying benches for the waiting rooms, redoing the ticket seller's cage and the like. Now the rear half of the first floor, in what would have been a sort of balcony in the original structure that housed the superintendent's offices, there are exhibits. Bare of furnishings, the room's walls are decorated mainly with photos. On the south wall is a giant blowup of a little-seen woodcut showing the scene outside the depot when some 1,000 well-wishers came to see Lincoln off. On the east wall is a collection of photos of “The places he lived, the streets he walked;" on the north wall more of the same showing "The friends he left behind;" on the west wall "The Lincolns of Eighth Street"—all prepared by SSU's Barbara Schiebling. Near the west wall hangs a copy in black letters on Plexiglass of the Farewell Address itself, the “150 words some historians rank with the Gettysburg Address. Notes Becker. "It was completely extemporaneous, as most of his speeches were. After he was on the train he figured out he'd said something good, so he wrote it down." In the east wall there is a window that overlooks the platform from which those words were spoken. There are scuff marks on the wall below the sill, apparently from curious visitors crowding close to look through the glass.
It is upstairs on the second floor that the central exhibit of the depot is housed. The room is carpeted and green window shades keep out the summer sun. Along the south wall is a partial replica of the Pennsylvania railroad car that bore Lincoln eastward. The windows of this novel stage are the screens for the slide and tape program that plays here to audiences seated in front on, inevitably, waiting room benches.
The show consists of graphics and still photos in full color, the latter shot by C. J. Allen of Massachusetts along the zig-zag route taken by Lincoln on his way to the capital. The program relives the inaugural- train trip. Voices of the principals in the drama then unfolding—Jeff Davis, Buchanan, assorted newspaper editorialists, Lincoln himself—describe the issues and events that Lincoln addressed and the uncertain reception given the new president as a result. (In an accompanying essay published as part of the sites project, historian Geoffrey Ward notes politely that the trip "was not Lincoln's finest hour.” Visitors hear (indeed, cannot help but hear, since the volume is painfully loud in places) Lincoln telling law partner William Herndon that when he returns from the White House, the two would "go right on practicing law as if nothing happened"; a newspaper editor blasting Lincoln's speeches as being "destitute of common pertinence;" Lincoln, in Trenton, New Jersey, swearing, "The man does not live who is more devoted to peace than I am, but it might be necessary to put the foot down firmly;" the derisive taunts that followed Lincoln's surreptitious entry into the capital after an assassination scare; finally, in Washington, his futile plea, "We must not be enemies."
The show lasts a quick twenty minutes; in fact, events parade across the three screens so fast and so busily that viewers unfamiliar with the period (as most visitors doubtless are) might be forgiven some confusion about who said what about whom and where. Still, the show is entertaining, which is the larger aim of the latest generation of electronic tour guides which attempt to do in twenty minutes what the schools typically fail to do in twenty years, namely give the average American some idea of who Lincoln was and why his life is important. The show is not free; children are charged 50 cents to get in, adults a dollar and families $2. "People in Springfield are so spoiled, " Becker notes with mixed amazement and annoyance, "that some of them actually resent having to pay a little dollar." Of course, most of the major Lincoln sites are run by the state or federal governments and are free to the public; only the depot and the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices are not. This is because only those two are privately owned and managed.
This causes other problems. Because the sites are private, the Springfield Convention and Tourism Commission, a tax-supported agency of Springfield city government, will not promote them along with the home, tomb, Old Capitol, and New Salem, lest having supported two worthy private Lincoln attractions they be forced to promote many more unworthy one.
One of the fonder hopes of the sites project personnel was to coordinate the sites so as to offer sightseers some kind of coherent narrative instead of the usual disconnected scurrying from place to place. The sites project prepared maps with all six major sites on it, but is having trouble distributing them. (Perhaps it's just as well. The maps show North Grand Avenue just one block north of Jefferson Street, when in fact it is ten, which might explain the number of cars with out-of-state plates circling through the north side of Springfield forlornly searching for the final stop on their—and Lincoln's—tour.) Also on offer is a series of six thirty-two-page pamphlets published by the sites project which are being sold around the city—except at the most heavily visited site of all, Lincoln's home, whose proprietor, the National Park Service, has a policy against commercialism of any kind. ("They could easily sell just good stuff," sniffs Becker. "They don't have to go into the caps-with-feathers kind of things." )
It remains to be seen whether the new brochures, maps and slide-and-sound programs can persuade significant numbers of tourists to stop by the Great Western Depot. It is slightly off the tourist track, in a different direction than the law offices and Old State Capitol from the Lincoln home, usual starting point of walking tours. It would be too bad in a way if few people go to the depot. It is possible that those in charge of the Lincoln sites project have mistaken the American tourist's desire to be diverted for a desire to be instructed, that the lessons to be gleaned from spots like the depot are too hard-won to be attempted by most tourists between stops at the wax museum and the Steak 'n' Shake. Who knows? Those who want to find out for themselves are invited to tour the depot. It's open daily from 9 to 5, Sunday noon to 5. ●
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