The rebuilt United States, ready for its 2015 journey. (Photo courtesy of Lincoln Funeral Train.)
Before there was Air Force One, there was The United States, a luxury steam locomotive built in the waning days of the Civil War. But its first and only official use came after the death of the president for whom it was built: Abraham Lincoln actually never even set eyes on the train. Instead it became best known as the vehicle that took Lincoln’s coffin from Washington to Springfield, Illinois.
The train’s very strange history has an even stranger modern chapter. It is, somehow, back up and running.
The U.S. Military Railroad, a sort of predecessor of the U.S. Army Transportation Corps, began constructing The United States in 1863, sensing the coming end of the war. The department predicted, correctly, that the president would need a vehicle to travel around the country after his presidency returned to some semblance of normalcy. “Lincoln was aware of the construction but really shelled the idea anytime it came up,” says Shannon Brown, media director for the modern-day Lincoln Funeral Train. “He felt that there was no reason to be spending money on something like that.” Lincoln kept putting off seeing the train, even after it was finished, in 1865.
Eventually, Lincoln was worn down enough to make an appointment to see the train—on April 15th, 1865. “He never used it while he was alive,” says Brown.
Lincoln’s body, however, went on a grand tour. The United States was used officially for the first and only time to transport Lincoln’s coffin through over 150 communities between the capital and Lincoln’s hometown, present at 12 separate funerals in major cities on the way. Reporters boarded for individual legs between stops, waxing poetic for the magazines and newspapers of the time about the luxurious, presidential train Lincoln would never see.
The history of the train after that is spotty and inelegant. It was put up for sale before it even reached Springfield, and ended up in the hands of Union Pacific, which stripped out the opulent touches and transformed it into an ordinary passenger car. Eventually it ended up in a shed owned by a private citizen in Minnesota, where it was destroyed in a fire. But fire and near-total destruction isn’t enough to deter Lincoln-lovers.
In 1999, Dave Kloke, an engineer from Elgin, Illinois, decided to fulfill a lifelong dream and build himself a fully-functioning steam locomotive. “It took 10 years, strictly a hobby, just one of those bucket list things,” says Brown. It can be hard to track down the blueprints for that kind of train, but it turns out that the Parks Department had them for the Leviathan 63, the very model that The United States was based on. By the time he finished the project, he realized that the 150-year anniversary of Lincoln’s death was coming up, and realized he could transform his train into a replica.
The United States, Lincoln’s funeral train. Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons.
Reconstructing the train has been difficult—or, the interior has. There are plenty of extant photos of the original train on which to model the new reconstruction, but the inside is a different story. “There are no known photographs of the interior, that’s sort of our holy grail,” says Brown. Instead his team relied on descriptions from bureaucrats and engineers and, especially, journalists, who at the time tended to be much more flowery and extravagant in their language. “We figure we’re probably about 90-95 percent historically accurate inside. Outside, probably closer to about 98 percent,” says Brown.
The interior reflected the timely conception of luxury; Brown used the word “garish” to describe it. Think leather-bound walls, huge heavy furniture, decorative rosettes sewn into the ceiling. It had a bedroom and, innovative for the time, a bathroom. The new model is as historically accurate as possible, meaning, yes, it has a working water closet on board.
The new train, dubbed the Lincoln Funeral Train Tour, will begin on May 2nd in Springfield. The tour is designed to mimic the original tour the first train made with Lincoln’s coffin; in fact, they have two replica coffins today. The locomotive can really run on today’s tracks, up to around 40 miles per hour (though it’s not likely to even reach half that), but it can actually be mounted onto what’s essentially a tractor base to be towed around the country. It might be hard to explain to Amtrak or a metropolitan regional rail operator why trains will have to run at 20 miles per hour behind a luxury train with a fake coffin and probably some children on a field trip inside.
The team hopes to raise enough funds to take the train due east, ending up in Alexandria, where the original train was conceived and constructed. And why not? Lincoln did it.