The Lincoln funeral train is rolling again. Today, April 21, 2015, it left Washington, D.C. On April 21, 1865, the bodies of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln and his son Willie left Washington on a 12-day journey to Springfield, Illinois.
In 1865 a private railroad car named The United States was modified to serve as a funeral car for a 1,600 mile sojourn through 160 communities. In 12 major cities like Chicago and Cleveland actual funerals were held. In 2015 a period locomotive called The Leviathan will pull a recreated funeral car along the same route as Lincoln’s funeral train.
Undertakers in Springfield didn’t have what they considered a grand enough vehicle to carry the remains of President Lincoln from the train to Oak Ridge Cemetery. The Mayor of St. Louis, Missouri, stepped forward and offered to lend an appropriate hearse for the occasion. It arrived in Springfield along with 6 matched black horses to pull it on May 2, 1865. The hearse had been built in Philadelphia for Lynch & Arnot, St. Louis livery operators, for about $6,000. A photograph of the hearse was taken in May 1865, and it appeared in a woodcut of the entombment ceremony. These are the only 2 images of it known to exist because of a photo ban.
The Staab family of Springfield agreed to recreate this hearse, now called “Icon of Freedom”, from the photograph. Historians were consulted. Eric Hollenbeck, a Vietnam veteran who served with the 101st Airborne during the TET offensive, was asked if he’d help. Eric said he’d be honored and that he needed to engage a group of returning Afghanistan and Iraq vets in the project who had served in the front lines.
Ruth and I became involved when we traveled through Eureka, California, in the final week of 2014. Looking, as usual, for worthwhile subjects to write about, we just happened to visit Blue Ox Millworks where Eric’s wife Viviana suggested we take a tour of their custom Victorian millwork shop. When we said we didn’t have the time, she asked if we’d like to at least see their latest project. I asked questions and took photos of Eric and others building the hearse. Eric would look at the sole photograph of it and apply his talents to recreating it. Ruth and I quickly saw that this was not just the story of building a hearse.
On April 8, 2015, I was sitting in The Staab Funeral Home in Springfield waiting to talk to P. J. Staab, Project Coordinator, about the hearse. P.J. had missed his flight that morning to Tombstone, Arizona, where Phase III was underway overseen by another Vietnam combat veteran, Jack G. Feather. Weather was causing flight cancellations. P.J. was at the dentist. When he returned, we talked for about 4 hours about the Icon of Freedom.
In his Malice Toward None speech, Lincoln said, “…let us strive on to finish the work we are in….” P.J, Eric, Jack, etc. are still striving. To be continued.