In Texas just now a funeral train carrying the body of a former president crawls along the rails to its final destination. This is not a unique event. Erie County, too, saw such an event after the assassination of Pres. Abraham Lincoln in April 1865.
*”On that morning, April 20th, the train pulled away from the depot in Washington City, engine bell tolling. The train traveled at an unusually slow speed to help ensure the safety of the great number of people who lined the track along every mile of the trip. In some places those crowds were almost a mile deep.
“Bonfires lit up the night skies along the route and the mute crowds stood in the rain as the train rolled by,” wrote historian Stephen Oates.
Ida Tarbell wrote of those mourners also: “Great bonfires were built in lonely country sides, around which the farmers waited patiently to salute their dead… Much of the journey was made through rain… but the people seemed to have forgotten all things but that Abraham Lincoln, the man they loved and trusted, was passing by for the last time.”
On April 28, the Erie Dispatch reported on the progress of the funeral train and commented on the decision to display the body of the murdered president. The editor recognized this was intended as a tribute to the wishes of the people, “but we scarcely believe that the American people generally consider the arrangement a necessary or a proper one.”
There were reports, included in Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln, that an embalmer road the train with the family and made improvements to Lincoln’s deteriorating face several times.
Meanwhile, the train continued on its path, passing through Rochester, New York at 3:20 a.m. on April 27th, then Batavia where a short choral tribute was given at the depot. As the dawn approached and the day progressed, the train continued west through New York State with several short stops along the way. Every station begged to be among those stops.
Erie was one of the favored stops, but late on the 27th the Erie Committee was notified that the stop was cancelled. The family was tired, needing rest. The large number of people who had collected to pay their respects were sent home. Then, a change of mind and Erie was resurrected as a stop for the funeral train.
Just before 3 a.m. on Saturday, April 28th, 1865, the train pulled in for the Erie stop where it was greeted with a military salute and tolling bells. Most of those in attendance were allowed to pass through the funeral car. But only a small number had assembled and this was disappointing. A letter to the editor of the Gazette in the following issue stated that Erie citizens felt deeply mortified about the lack of demonstrations.
However, even though they were not at the depot, people of Erie County lined the tracks the whole way.
Wrote biographer Brockett: (Along the entire route) some waited on foot, some in carriages, to pay this little tribute of respect, the only one in their power, to the memory of the murdered President. All through the dark hours, as the train sped on, at each city, town, village and station, these testimonies of the people’s affection and grief were repeated.
In the early hours of the 28th, as the train rolled on through the dark, the mournful wail of the whistle marked the approach of each grade crossing all along the 46 miles of lakefront in Erie County, marking Lincoln’s second and final time here.
- Excerpts taken from the booklet “Abraham Lincoln in Erie County.”