How Lincoln's funeral train car perished in Minnesota

Lincoln's funeral car
President Abraham Lincoln's funeral car in Alexandria, Va.
Courtesy Jack el-Hai

This year marks 150 years since the end of the Civil War and, five days later, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

After Lincoln's death, a funeral train seen by countless Americans moved the president's body over two weeks back to his hometown of Springfield, Ill. The train arrived there on May 3, but the funeral train car that carried Lincoln was not done with its own journey. That journey brought it to Minnesota.

Minneapolis writer Jack El-Hai joined MPR News' Tom Weber to talk about the fate of the Lincoln funeral car, called the United States.

"It was the mid-19th-century equivalent of Air Force One because it was built during 1863 and 1864 to accommodate the president as he was traveling around the country," he said.

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From his piece on Medium:

The special car, built to transport a living Lincoln and his cabinet, was one of the most elaborately appointed railroad vehicles ever made. It had upholstered walls, etched-glass windows, 16 wheels (adaptable to both standard and five-foot-gauge tracks) to ensure a smooth ride, and rooms for working and relaxation. The exterior sides bore a large painted crest of the United States.

Perhaps thinking the United States too ostentatious, Lincoln did not use it. After his death, however, the car carried Lincoln's body on a two-week, 1,662-mile journey from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, for burial.

After being passed between the military and a couple railroad companies, Twin City Rapid Transit Company President Thomas Lowry bought it in 1905.

"Lowry's intention was to fully rehabilitate the car and find a place to display it so that people could finally visit this car and see it in all of its former splendor," El-Hai said.

Lowry died before he could restore the car and it was passed to the Minnesota Federation of Women's Clubs which kept it in Columbia Heights near the intersection of 37th Ave NE and Jackson St.

In 1911, the Federation planned to move it for exhibit. Months before the move, a grass fire erupted March 18 and engulfed the car.

"The accounts I looked into said that historians were able to salvage only a metal coupling from the ashes, but I have seen photos of the burnt out car and it seems to be more intact than that," El-Hai said. "The photos show a shell, a framework all burnt up."

El-Hai said he's heard rumors that a Minnesotan is in possession of a window frame from the car, but he hasn't found it yet.