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“here I Have Lived”

June 2024
2min read


Springfield bills itself as “Mr. Lincoln’s Hometown,” but it has never been entirely clear what it thinks of its First Citizen. On my last visit several years ago, the streets were filled with green signs pointing the way to what were then still called “Lincoln Shrines,” but it was possible to eat at the Ann Rutledge Pancake House and to visit a spectacularly tawdry Lincoln wax museum. The signs have since been secularized to “Lincoln Sites,” neither the wax museum nor Ann Rutledge seems to be in business any more, and the downtown has been spruced up, but this time I noticed that the “McDonald’s Lincoln Museum” has opened up just around the corner from Lincoln’s law office.

Whether you consider them sites or shrines, the places in and around Springfield most intimately connected with Lincoln’s life provide a tangible record of his rise. You can still get a sense of Lincoln unavailable anywhere else.

NEW SALEM STATE PARK

twenty miles from town, is the logical place to begin a Lincoln tour. Founded in 1829, and all but abandoned just a little more than a decade later, it was home to never more than twenty-five families and would be forgotten now had twenty-two-year-old Lincoln not settled there in 1831. During the six years he spent at New Salem, he tried and failed at business, failed and then succeeded in politics, and settled on the law as his profession. It was a central tenet of Lincoln’s faith that in America “all should have an equal chance.” Here is where he got his chance—and made the most of it.

All but one of the current log structures—a cooper’s shop built in 1835—are modern reconstructions, but in the early morning, before the cars begin pulling into the parking lot, New Salem must be very like the little town that served Lincoln as a way station between the backwoods clearings of his youth and the big town of Springfield.

LINCOLN’S LAW OFFICES

on the third floor of the Tinsley Building in Springfield, five blocks from his home and just across the square from the old State Capitol, are richly evocative of the profession to which he devoted most of his waking hours before 1861. It is easy to imagine him here, stalking across the uneven floorboards, reading the newspaper aloud to the secret fury of his clerk and partner, or sitting at one of the battered desks.

THE OLD STATE CAPITOL

is superbly restored and peopled—on Fridays and Saturdays at least—with costumed interpreters who portray Illinois politics in all its ethnic and sectional diversity as it was in 1851, when Stephen A. Douglas, not Lincoln, was the state’s preeminent politician. It was here on the hot night of June 16, 1858, that Lincoln first declared, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” launching his Senate campaign against Douglas and propelling himself toward the Presidency.

THE GREAT WESTERN DEPOT

is a small brick building that would long since have been torn down had it not been the spot from which Lincoln left for Washington on February 11, 1861. “To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing,” he told his neighbors, who had come to see him off. “Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. . . . I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return. . . .”

LINCOLN’S TOMB

at Oak Ridge Cemetery was not complete until 1874 and has had to be rebuilt because of weather damage and the settling of the earth beneath its colossal weight. Except for Robert (whose wife wished him buried at Arlington), all the Lincolns who lived together at Eighth and Jackson now lie here.

If you are planning a trip, you can contact the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau for more information on the city’s attractions: P.O. Box 1269, Springfield, 111. 62705/Tel: 1-800-545-7300. In Illinois, call 1-800-356-7900.

—G.C.W.

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