Looking for Lincoln’s Legacy 150 Years After His Death

ALLIANCE, Ohio — Of all the places National Geographic has inspired me to visit, nowhere in the pages and photographs I’ve treasured through the years do I remember the magazine mentioning Alliance, Ohio. And yet, on April 2, a few days after the latest issue arrived, I followed the cover story’s lead and traveled there to look for Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

The story, written by Adam Goodheart, author of “1861: The Civil War Awakening,” observed the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by retracing the route of the funeral train that carried his corpse to Springfield, Ill. Photographs taken along and near the old rail tracks, many in use today, showed how far the nation has come – and not come – in bridging our racial divide since the Great Emancipator’s death April 15, 1865. The essay was also illustrated by a map published in 1889 that outlined path of the funeral train as well as the train that, in February 1861, carried Lincoln from Springfield to the Capitol for his inauguration.

As I studied the map, and saw the town of Alliance, I recalled how Clingan Jackson, reporter and political editor for The Vindicator for some 50 years, liked to tell about an old man who showed up in the 1930s at the newspaper’s offices and exclaimed, “I saw Lincoln!”

As Jackson wrote in his Clingan’s Chronicles, an autobiography published in 1991, “The old man explained that at the age of four his father had awakened him at the family farmhouse in Columbiana County, loaded him and other members of his family into a wagon, and drove them through the rain and mud several miles to Alliance, where Lincoln’s train pulled in for a stop.”

It was Feb. 15, 1861, about 2 p.m. when the train reached Alliance. That morning the president-elect had spoken at length in Pittsburgh about tariff issues. In Alliance, he spoke for less than two minutes, essentially saying hello and farewell.

As reported Feb. 20, 1861, by the Salem Republican newspaper, Lincoln said, “If I should make a speech at every town, I would not get to Washington until after the inauguration [laughter].” He then entered the depot, known as the Sourbeck House, where he, his family and aides ate a turkey dinner with leaders of the “Alliance Committee” that promoted his election.

On the day I drove to the railroad tracks where the inauguration train stopped, the first warm day of early spring, I had only to look straight ahead from the not-yet-forgotten marker to find a sign of Lincoln’s legacy. Sure enough, the marker townspeople commissioned in 1934, to be built with stone – stone taken from Lincoln’s Kentucky birthplace – looks directly at the Martin Luther King Jr. Viaduct that crosses the tracks. The span is identified by a large sign that contains a picture of the assassinated civil rights leader and the words, “I have a dream.”

The symbolism of the viaduct’s name, intended or not by city officials when the fairly new structure was built, was a powerful testament to what I almost didn’t find, the marker itself. Unless you know it’s there (and even then), it’s easy to overlook. It took me two passes around the vicinity of the train station before I found the site. And when I did, I also found Wendell Leath, an 88-year-old widower sitting inside his parked car.

“Two great memorials to great two great men,” Leath said.

“I worked for the railroad for 40 years and I just come down here to watch the trains run,” he began.

“When I was a kid, they brought us up from school – school was right over there on Franklin Street. And they brought our class up here and told us about the president getting off the train here and speaking here. To me, it was a great thing.”

Alliance public school students still learn about Lincoln’s inauguration train, and periodically the Alliance Historical Society puts on programs related to the Civil War, says Karen Perone, president of the organization and technology director at the city’s Rodman Public Library.

A folder on file in the library’s reference department contains press clippings about Lincoln’s brief stop, including one printed by The Vindicator in 1959 in which Jackson recounts his story about the old man who saw Lincoln, as well as information about how the marker, first suggested by the president of what was then Mount Union College in Alliance, came to be built.

“There was a band of music that played when Lincoln arrived, according to one of the accounts,” says the history society’s Perone, “and as near as we can tell, it was the Haines brothers band. The Haines family was very active in the Underground Railroad – they had a home on Main Street – and this area was very active in the Abolition movement. It had quite a few Quakers, many of them in Salem.”

When Lincoln’s train passed through Alliance, named for an alliance of rail crossings and three villages that merged in the 1850s, it had a population estimated at 1,500. Today it’s home to 22,200 – its zenith as a rail center long past.

Still, 40 trains a day pass through, and if passengers who arrived on the sole eastbound and westbound Amtrak trains that stop here, at 1:30 and 3:30 in the morning, would have to walk quite a distance, in the dark, to see the Lincoln marker.

“A couple of years ago we noticed that it was overgrown and the green on the bronze was taking over to the point where you couldn’t read the monument anymore,” Perone says. “So we entrusted it to one of our local cemetery monument builders and he cleaned it and took care of it. We trimmed the shrubbery away and a local landscaping company replaced the shrubbery.”

On April 2, the plants still dormant, an empty cigar package and candy wrapper littered the small plot of ground where the marker sits. A young man, perhaps a graphics arts student at what is now the University of Mount Union, pulled up and got a camera out of the trunk of his car.

“Do you know that Abraham Lincoln stopped here on his way to Washington?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

He had come to shoot the next train that passed.

Pictured: The stone marker at the rail crossings in Alliance memorializes where Abraham Lincoln stopped briefly Feb. 15, 1861, as his train made its way from Springfield to the Capitol for his inauguration. Stone used to build the marker was taken from Lincoln’s birth site in Kentucky.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.