It’s February 16. The day had started out cold and rainy. In many places the earth had turned to mud. Yet people came out. They stood along the tracks; they clustered at the depots; some waited in their buggies.
The train was due soon – before noon through western Erie County. The schedule printed in the paper earlier said it would stop at North Girard for a few minutes so that Judge James Miles could get off. He had gone to Cleveland to ride back on this train. President-elect Lincoln would greet the crowd then the train would proceed to the Erie Depot where lunch would be served to the passengers.
The train would not stop in Fairview. But John Swan and his family were planning to mark the day anyway. He had arranged for a small cannon and as the train passed by the Swanville Depot he would shoot off the cannon in salute.
It was a salute felt to the very depths of John Swan’s soul. To the souls of everyone who waited by the tracks, who clustered at the depots and sat in their buggies.
This was the Presidential Special coming, carrying the President-Elect. Carrying the hopes of a nation with him, that he could save the country. That there would not be war. We would not fight brother against brother. This man, coming to lead us, this practically unknown Abraham Lincoln had such a burden.
But it might already be too late. Eleven states, nearly one-third of the country, had seceded by the time the Presidential Train rolled through Erie County. They had formed the Confederate States of American earlier this month and Jefferson Davis, a former senator from Mississippi, had been elected their president. What could Lincoln do to stop this?
There were plots against him. Horace Greeley had been in Meadville at a speaking engagement the evening before and he arrived at the North Girard Depot shortly before the train. He would climb aboard and ride along with the man. Greeley had heard rumors of an assassination attempt and he wanted to warn Lincoln. He also wanted the President-elect to speak out, to talk about his plans to save the country. All Lincoln was saying through this long period since his election was that this crisis was “altogether artificial.” He also spoke of “firmness, forbearance and adherence to the Constitution.”
Lincoln promised to speak out when the time was right. Surely that was now. But he told jokes, referring to himself and his diminutive wife, who would come out to the platform on the rear of the train and stand with him, as “the long and the short of it.” Still, he would stand there, often alone, and wave back at the crowds along the track for long periods after passing the railroad crossings. Somehow, seeing his creased face and the deep concern there helped to assure some.
In North Girard the Girard Guard gave a salute and Lincoln spoke briefly about Stephen Girard, for whom the township was named. Then the train rolled on east. As it approached the Swanville Depot the Swan family was so excited they shot off the cannon too soon and Henry, one of John’s sons, was severely injured, but did recover.
After lunch in Erie the train continued its journey through the county with another short stop in North East then on into New York State. At Westfield the train stopped again, and Lincoln called for the little girl, Grace Bedell, who had written to him about growing whiskers to improve his appearance.
Abraham Lincoln was in Erie County for a few hours on Saturday, February 16, 1861.