Looking for Lincoln

Tuesday, August 21, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Lincoln, 1860 (by M. Brady)
Though both Kentucky and Indiana lay some claim to Abraham Lincoln as a native son, Illinois clearly has cornered the market on Lincolnabilia.  Born in Kentucky, Lincoln moved with his family to Indiana at age 7.  Fearing an outbreak of disease, the family migrated west to Illinois when Abe was 21.  From that time until he moved to the White House in 1861, Lincoln was an active citizen of the state of Illinois, known today as the Land of Lincoln.  It's on the state welcome signs, the state license plate, and even on the state quarter.

Our first encounter with Illinois on this trip came on Sunday, when we crossed the Ohio River on I-24 from Kentucky and rolled into Metropolis, IL (pop. 6,537).  Although there's no genuine connection between this small town and the imaginary large urban population center that's home to the fictional hero, Superman, the town has made the most of their same name brush with fame.  A giant statue of the caped crusader stands in front of the local courthouse near the city's Superman Museum.  We didn't stop for folklore, however, since we were on the trail of a genuine American hero, the man who successfully led our nation through its greatest crisis.  Our target was Springfield, the state capital and home to numerous Lincoln sites.

As we were driving purposefully toward Springfield, we passed an arrowed sign proclaiming Balloon Fest.  Of course, we did the only sensible thing and left the highway headed in the direction of the sign, toward Centralia (pop. 13,032).  Named for the Illinois Central Railroad, the town plays host to an annual hot air balloon festival attracting more than 40 of the big floaters.  A quick look at the festival schedule on our smart phone told us we'd be arriving just in time for the (tentatively) planned tethered balloon rides.  

I'm not going to lie; we were pumped.  What could be more fun on a lazy Sunday afternoon than a quick little no-risk balloon ride?  Oh, wait, there's more.  The published cost for said ride was $10!  We were giddy with enthusiasm.  (Abraham who?)

Centralia Balloon Festival
Arriving at Centralia Foundation Park, we walked through dozens of vendors selling all matter of interesting things—rings made from silver spoons, tie-dye shirts and skirts and blankets, custom-crafted purses, hand-carved duck decoys, and too many other items to mention.  If you are the kind of person who enjoys shopping at festivals, this was the place for you.  However, we came to find balloons—big puffy hot air balloons and we weren't seeing any.  As it turned out, the tentative plans for tethered rides had been cancelled because apparently the balloonists were having too much fun floating around somewhere else.  They would return for a race at 6 p.m.  We decided against hanging out and riding the kiddie train for five hours, cutting the tether keeping us in Centralia and resuming our trek toward Springfield.

Before we left, however, we did encounter some hometown heroes, a group of boomers playing some tunes familiar to mature folks like us.  As Centralia High School students in the mid-1960s, these guys started by getting together to play music for fun, eventually playing gigs in their local area.    Like most garage bands, they quit jamming to carry on with their lives.  Then in 2005, after four of the original band members retired and soon dusted off their old instruments.  The band came out of dormancy and now plays throughout southern Illinois, genuinely enjoying reliving their youth.
Vandalia Statehouse (Illinois Capitol building, 1836-39)
Detouring through Centralia set us on the path to Vandalia (pop. 7,042), an early Illinois capital city and the place where Lincoln began his political career when he was elected to the state legislature in 1834.  This fact has not gone unnoticed by the locals.  At the state historic site of the Vandalia Statehouse, we encountered the first of many interpretive signs in Vandalia and later Springfield and other towns with what became a familiar logo. 

If you come to Illinois looking for Lincoln, you will not need to look too hard to find sites deemed relevant to the 16th President.  Just keep your eyes peeled for a "Looking for Lincoln" logo, the symbol for the Looking for Lincoln Consortium, a group of communities that share a heritage involving Illinois's favorite native son.  The coalition seeks to tell the stories of Lincoln specific to each community and encourages member towns to relate the history in a compelling way.  Interpretive signs bearing this logo can be found throughout these communities at Lincoln-relevant locations.

After our diversions, we at last made it to Springfield (pop. 116,250) Sunday evening, making plans for visiting the city's Lincoln sites on Monday.  We began at the Abraham Lincoln National Historic Site, operated by the National Park Service.  In addition to the Lincoln home, the four-block area surrounding the home has been restored to its condition in 1860, complete with gravel streets, gas streetlights, and wooden sidewalks and curbs.  (Hello, Williamsburg?  The twentieth century called and wants its asphalt and electric lights back.  Looks like Springfield can show you how it's done.)
The only home Lincoln ever owned
On the excellent ranger-led tour of the house, we learned that Robert Todd Lincoln, Abe's only child to survive to adulthood, sold the house to the state of Illinois for the sum of $1.00 in 1887 with the provision that the structure be maintained and opened to the public free of charge.  Included in this generous gift were most of the original furnishings of the house when the Lincolns lived there.  After her husband's tragic and untimely death, Mrs. Lincoln could never bring herself to return to the house, which was rented to several families, until the widow died and her son donated the house to the state.
Old State Capitol Building, Springfield
From the Lincoln home, we walked a couple of blocks northwest to the Old State Capitol Building, which served as the seat of the Illinois government from 1837 to 1876.  Lincoln not only served in the legislature in this building, but he also argued more than 400 cases before the Illinois Supreme Court here, according to our excellent guide, a college student dressed in period costume.  Like the Lincoln National Historic Site, tours of the old capitol had no admission fee.

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library
Just two blocks north of the Capitol is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library, which does charge a $12 admission.  Owned and operated by the state of Illinois, the museum has generated strong feelings from those who either love or hate its modern entertainment-style exhibits.  Wax figures populate vignettes depicting key events in Lincoln's life. 

Lincolns at the White House (Look out for that villain on the left!)
Like some of the critics, we found a few of the exhibits of little benefit except to induce sensory overload.  A hall of posters of political cartoons and other Lincoln-related posters and newspaper reports was designed with misshapen frames and even slanted doors, creating a disorienting optical illusion that felt much like walking through a carnival hall of mirrors.  In another disconcerting section, conflicting contemporaneous opinions about the Emancipation Proclamation were presented on a dozen or so adjacent television screens, all with speakers yelling simultaneously their feelings about the document. 

One of the most effective exhibits featured a mock-up of a TV control room with video of the late Tim Russert presenting a news report on the state of the 1860 election campaign, complete with his usual insightful analysis and campaign commercials for each of the candidates.
Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery
No tour of Springfield's Lincoln sites would be complete without a visit to his current location, the Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery.  After paying our respects to the President, we tracked down six letterboxes in the cemetery, most of which were tributes to Lincoln.

Leaving Oak Ridge and Springfield, we drove north on I-55 to Bloomington, then took I-39 further north, seeing lots of drought-stricken corn crops, although more fields showed higher rates of green than we saw in Kentucky.  Lining both sides of I-39 were massive fields of corn and soybeans with farm buildings and grain silos in the distance.  Our day ended at Peru, IL (pop. 10,295), near the location of Starved Rock State Park, which we would visit on Tuesday.  
St. Louis Canyon, Starved Rock State Park (waterfall is but a trickle)
Recently voted the #1 attraction in the state by citizens of Illinois, Starved Rock State Park is located along the south bank of the Illinois River and is home to 18 deep canyons, many of which feature waterfalls when sufficient water is present.  With 13 miles of hiking trails, in addition to fishing, boating, camping and horseback riding, it's no surprise that the park hosts more than two million visitors annually.  We found both the geography and history intriguing, even the story of the triple murder that occurred in St. Louis Canyon in 1960.
Just a few miles from Starved Rock is Matthiessen State Park, which boasts its own interesting rock formations and waterfalls.  The park is also home to a flying field for radio-controlled model airplanes.  When we arrived at the field, searching for a place to plant our Illinois letterbox, we met some members of a local flying club.  They told us a bit about their hobby and even more about their state.  "Illinois is the most corrupt state in the country.  Right now we have two former governors in prison."  When we asked about taxes in the state, one gentleman deadpanned, "They don't even bother to raise our taxes any more.  They just send us a monthly bill."  
Deer Park Flying Club meeting breaks up after the batteries are dead.
We enjoyed our visit with these amiable Illinoisans, who had lots of suggestions for where we should visit when we left their area.  As with the balloon bust in Centralia, however, our timing was slightly off.  By the time we arrived, the morning's flights were over because the airplane batteries had gone dry.

Allen Park, Ottawa, IL
In nearby Ottawa (pop. 18,786), we watched the barge traffic on the Illinois River a while as we located and stamped in to a letterbox near one of Peter Toth's Whispering Giant statues.  Our time in Illinois was drawing to a close since we had hotel reservations in Wisconsin Tuesday evening, but we still had not found a place to leave our letterbox.  We pressed on toward Rockford and the border, finally locating just the right spot near Steward (pop. 256) after finding one last Illinois letterbox, honoring another Illinois native son, in Troy Grove (pop. 250).
"Wild Bill" Hickock, Troy Grove, IL
James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was born in Troy Grove in 1837, the same year that Lincoln made his first speech against slavery.  This was a cause dear to Hickock as well.  Wild Bill assisted with an Underground Railroad station run by his abolitionist father, who died for his beliefs.  Legend has it that during the younger Hickock's Army days, he backed down a lynch mob, prompting an onlooker to shout, "Good for you, Wild Bill!" and the name stuck.  At age 18, Hickok left Illinois, and today we did, too, as we drove north into Wisconsin.  

NOTE:  If you are unable to visit the Lincoln historic sites in Illinois yourself, the state's Historic Preservation Agency has made it possible for you to build your own cardstock models of historic buildings associated with Abraham Lincoln.  Search on Google for the relevant pdf files.


  • Entered the Union:  1818, as the 21st state
  • Population:  12,830,632 (5th most populous)
  • Nickname:  The Land of Lincoln (duh!)
  • Percent of Illinois land devoted to agriculture:  80%
  • Land Area: 55,593 sq.mi. (25th largest)
  • High Point: Charles Mound  (1,235 ft.) 
  • Miles we drove in Illinois:  563
  • Letterboxes found:  10
  • Friendly people we met:  15
  • State Parks visited:  3
Consolation prize when we couldn't take the balloon ride
Lincoln's humble desk in his bedroom
Lincoln's last law office in Springfield (where he thought he'd practice again after leaving Washington)
General McClellan and General Grant waxing poetic in the Lincoln Museum
Touching the nose of this Lincoln bust at the tomb is considered good luck
Peter Toth's Whispering Giant #61, Ottawa, IL