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154 years ago today: Lincoln’s funeral train passed through York County

They came by the scores, many dressed in black mourning clothes and braving the elements.

Gathered alongside the tracks of the Northern Central Railway in southern York County, Pennsylvania, at nearly every crossroads, at every wayside station, or simply along the tracks near their farms, York Countians stood anxiously in the mist and drizzle awaiting the arrival of a train.

Not just any train.

THE train.

The one bearing the body of the late president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Few in this Democratic region of York County had voted for Lincoln in either presidential election in 1860 or 1864. Yet, here they were, putting aside lingering political differences to pay their respects to their fallen leader.

The funeral train, en route to Springfield, Illinois, where the railsplitter was to be buried, had left Washington, D. C.  at 8 a.m. on a cold, gray Friday, April 21, 1865. It was exactly one week to the day that John Wilkes Booth had shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in the nation’s capital. The train arrived in Baltimore about 10 a.m., where crowds of mourners had gathered.

As I wrote in my book, Soldiers, Spies, and Steam: A History of the Northern Central Railway in the Civil War, “At 2:50 p.m. the pilot train—with 29-year-old George W. Fry of Shrewsbury Township, York County, as its engineer—left Calvert Station. It would keep the route clear for the trailing funeral train, which under military orders had the right of way versus all other traffic. Ten minutes later, the locomotive pulling the nine-car funeral train emitted a shrill whistle and it slowly steamed out of the station. The large crowd kept quiet and respectful as a bell tolled.”

About 5:30 p.m., the train paused at New Freedom (Summit Station #1) where another train with the governor of Pennsylvania, Andrew G. Curtin, awaited.  He and some of his party would ride in the Lincoln funeral train north to Harrisburg, where the body would lie in state while crowds passed by. “At every cross road there were crowds of people,” Conductor William Gould recalled, “and as the funeral train passed them the men took off their hats, and I noticed many, both men and women, who shed tears as the train passed. It was the most solemn trip I ever took on a train. Everybody on the train was solemn and everybody the train passed was solemn.”

As the cold drizzle intensified, the funeral train steamed through southern York County. “The common-dressed laborer stood beside well-dressed citizens,” a Boston reporter on board later commented, “and black and white formed an interesting group. The gloom produced by death for a time leveled all distinctions… The same solemnity of countenance was everywhere seen, and all seemed profoundly silent spectators of the funeral cortege.”

After passing through Hanover Junction and Glen Rock, the train arrived in downtown York at 6:40 p.m. to a mournful dirge from the U. S. Army Hospital’s brass band. “The sidewalks, doors, and windows swarmed with people,” another reporter noted. “Badges of mourning and draped flags were everywhere seen.” As the engine took on water for the final leg of the journey to Harrisburg, six of York’s leading ladies carried a huge wreath adorned with fragrant flowers into the funeral car. A local black man, Aquilla Howard, quietly placed the wreath on the coffin.

A Philadelphia reporter captured the heart-wrenching scene at York’s depot. “A neat tribute, plain but coming from the heart, will weigh against the costly decorations of the millionaire; a starry flag, of violets laid upon the corpse by the ladies of York. Old men, tottering to their graves, with rain pattering upon their bald heads; wounded soldiers hobbling to the roadside to show their love for him who sleeps before them: old women sobbing as though they had lost their firstborn; fair maidens brush away the tears, and men hold up their little ones to see the car which contains the remains of the people’s friend. ‘He was crucified for us!’ exclaims an old colored man, but the shrill whistle sounds, and we leave a scene that can never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.”

At 6:53 p.m., the train slowly pulled out of York and headed north through Emigsville, Liverpool (now Manchester), and York Haven on its way to Harrisburg as the cold drizzle continued to set a somber tone to the affair. At 8:00 p.m., the funeral train arrived in Harrisburg.

That concluded Abraham Lincoln’s second visit to York County (the first had been November 18 and 19, 1863, when he traveled through Hanover Junction to and from Gettysburg to deliver the Gettysburg Address).

154th Anniversary of the Lincoln Funeral Train Passing Through Lancaster County.

I will be signing books April 22 and 23 all day at Stone Gables Estate near Elizabethtown, PA, as part of the ceremonies to commemorate the Lincoln funeral train’s trip from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. The estate encompasses some of the original right of way of the railroad and tracks have been restored. Pulled by the Leviathan, a 4-4-0 engine decked out to resemble the funeral train, a replica of the funeral car will again roll through the area. On April 23, I will speak at 2 p.m. on the Northern Central Railway’s role in the funeral train. For more information, click here.