When I found out my grandson had a day off from school on the day before Thanksgiving I asked if I could have him for the day. I'd heard good things about the Lincoln Train Museum. Since he loves trains, we took off for Gettysburg as soon as I'd finished chopping celery and onion for our turkey day stuffing.
But the trip to the museum was a lot more than a train excursion. We were transferred back in time to the days of Lincoln, and the entire history lesson — complete with trains — only cost a total of $11 admission.
The hallway into the museum has a line of motion-activated flatscreen television sets. As we approached, "Lincoln" appeared on the first screen to share America's history as "he" saw it. Each screen gave us a glimpse of another time period in history, beginning with George Washington, marching through Lincoln's inauguration as the 16th president of the USA and bringing us through the Reconstruction period, his passing, and on to the world as we know it today.
Down the stairs we went, into the train museum where we were greeted with loads of historical memorabilia and two full train garden setups. The larger one had several trains plus carnival rides, buses and other features that came to life with the push of a button. The smaller one showed the journey of Lincoln's remains home to Springfield, Illinois, after his assassination, along with the remains of his young son, Willie.
As the train ambled from stop to stop in the train garden before us, a screen above the train table showed footage of the journey of Lincoln's body, beginning in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. It was one of the largest and most elaborate funeral processions in American history.
How was it that I did not know of this procession? I thought I knew my history. And how was it that his son's body was in transit with him? Watching the short movie my education on this period of history was enhanced, right alongside my grandson.
We learned that Lincoln's beloved son Willie had died three years prior at the age of 12 from Typhoid Fever. The solemnly adorned locomotive that carried them home was one of the most elaborate of its day, compared to today's Air Force I. Sadly, Lincoln was supposed to have his first ride on the train on the day he was shot. The train had been built specifically for him to journey across these lands with a sleeping car, dining car and more. Instead, it carried him and his son Willie back to Lincoln's hometown.
Riding the train with Lincoln's casket were numerous dignitaries and personal overseers of his body as well as members of the honor guard, more than 300 other VIPs and his eldest son, Robert Todd. The journey incorporated numerous stops, starting with Baltimore, Maryland and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At each stop along the route, Lincoln's body was ceremoniously unloaded from the train and placed in a hearse and then taken to statehouses, city halls and holy places where mourners came to pay their respects. Some locations boasted as many as 1,000 visitors an hour with many waiting hours for the opportunity to pay their respects.
Lincoln's 1,654-mile journey home followed the same route in reverse that he'd take on his way to Washington in 1861. By the time he arrived home to Springfield more than a million Americans of all races, ages, religions and creeds had paid their homage to this man who was everything America still stands for today.
Visiting the museum was a last-minute thing, something I hadn't planned to do. In fact, I had debated about whether or not I actually had time with all the Thanksgiving cooking and cleaning on my schedule, but I am so glad the voice in my head persisted and I relented. Quality time with my grandson is hard to find and in the end, we were both rewarded. In today's political environment we needed this reinforcement of what America is about and without us even realizing it, it bolstered us, gave us more confidence in the strength of America.
As we rode home, Matthew said something so profound.
"Even if he's not a nice man I wish everyone who is going crazy over Trump would calm down and just wait to see what happens," he said.
I nodded and agreed. I admit that I am one of the ones worrying over our country's future, but my very wise grandson is right.
The museum had so many other cool things, too. It has memorabilia from the reign of all our presidents. It has baseball and sports memorabilia, law enforcement keepsakes, cowboy heroes, Wild West pieces, Medals of Honor, U.S. Military collectibles and Hollywood souvenirs. And on the floor a long line of real train whistles stand on display, some of them as tall as me.
Before we left we boarded the simulated train and seated ourselves on its crushed velvet benches. As the lights dimmed and the "train" began to rock with motion, a full-sized Lincoln appeared on the screen before us to share words about his last journey home. Screens on either side of him shared video from years gone by and flatscreens set in the train windows allowed us to see the landscape rushing by. The movie ended with Lee Greenwood belting out "God Bless the USA."
Matthew and I departed the train museum reflecting on history, and especially how Lincoln changed the trajectory of America for the better. Over the years it sometimes feels like our country takes two steps forward and one step back, but slow progress is certain and I have decided to have faith.
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Lois Szymanski is a Carroll County resident and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.