It was just three-quarters of a mile from the clanging bell atop of the Columbia Heights fire hall to the wind-whipped grass fire roaring to its south. But by the time the village’s fledging fire department could respond to the alarm, that seven-block distance proved too great to save a sacred relic of U.S. history.
That grass fire on March 18, 1911, not only consumed 10 blocks of early Columbia Heights, it razed the funeral train car that had carried slain President Abraham Lincoln’s body home from Washington, D.C., to Illinois. More than 7 million people in 180 cities and seven states had solemnly watched the train chug halfway across the country in 1865.
So what was the funeral car doing in Minnesota 46 years later?
First, some background on what historians describe as the Air Force One of its era. The special car, christened the “United States,” was built in Alexandria, Va., in 1863 and 1864 at the U.S. Military Car Shops during the Civil War.
It was designed with 16 wheels to smooth out the ride for Lincoln and his advisers. Etched-glass windows, fancy upholstered interior walls and a painted bald eagle national crest adorned the car, which had meeting rooms and parlors for relaxing.
One problem. Lincoln never climbed aboard when he was alive. He might have found it too ostentatious, especially in wartime, according to Jack El-Hai, one of Minnesota’s leading history writers who has researched the ill-fated train car.
Newspapers published the funeral train’s scheduled stops in the days leading up to Lincoln’s May 4, 1865, funeral in Springfield, Ill. Puffing black smoke, the train would stop in town after town along its 1,600-mile route. His coffin would be placed behind an elaborate horse-drawn hearse and brought to public buildings for viewing.
Lincoln didn’t ride alone. The body of his son, Willie, was exhumed from a cemetery in Washington so he could be buried with his father in Springfield. Willie had died of typhoid fever at 11 during his father’s first term.
After the funeral, the government sold Lincoln’s rail car for $6,850 to the Union Pacific Railroad, whose executives used it for several years. They sold it for $2,000 to an entrepreneur named Franklyn Snow, who tried to cash in on the morbid artifact at commercial exhibits across the Midwest. Maybe it was too close to the Civil War, because the shows flopped.
The Colorado Central Railroad bought the car for $3,000 and stripped it down for use as a day coach and a work car. After bouncing around for nearly 40 years, the car found its would-be savior in Minnesota.
His name was Thomas Lowry, a 62-year-old Minneapolis land developer, railroad honcho, civic booster and streetcar magnate. Realizing the value of this neglected piece of history, Lowry purchased the car in 1905. He planned to completely restore and permanently display it somewhere people could witness the old train car’s historic splendor.
Lowry called his treasure “the most sacred relic in the United States.” But he died in 1909 from tuberculosis that had dogged him for the four years he owned the car. Perhaps he hoped his rescue of the Lincoln funeral car might become part of his legacy, right along with his beloved namesake — the Lowry Hill neighborhood of Minneapolis.
After his death, Lowry’s estate donated the train car to the Minnesota Federation of Women’s Clubs. That group planned to secure it in an exhibit space later that summer of 1911. In the meantime, it was idled and stored in Columbia Heights on 37th Avenue between Quincy and Jackson streets.
Columbia Heights, located just north of Minneapolis, was an unlucky 13 years old when the grass fires swept across Anoka County that mid-March Saturday in 1911. The fire department was just four years old, paying local men a couple of bucks to respond when the bell rang above the original headquarters on 40th Avenue and 7th Street near today’s City Hall. By the time the fire squad responded, it was too late to save the old funeral car in time.
“Car That Carried Remains of Lincoln Is Burned in Spectacular Prairie Fire,” screamed the headlines in the Minneapolis Sunday Journal. “Relic of Martyred President Reduced to Blackened Framework of Wood and Iron.”
Historians reported that they could save only a metal coupling from the ashes. Photos after the fire showed the charred shell and framework.
Over the years, pieces of the train car have surfaced. In St. Paul, renowned painter and illustrator Edward Brewer moved the old Meeker Dam lock master’s house a half-mile up from the Mississippi River to Pelham Boulevard. The artist’s father had acquired a piece of the metal rail from the Lincoln funeral car, and Brewer used it to suspend a kettle over his fireplace, according to old newspaper clippings.
Illinois history buffs, meanwhile, have constructed a replica of the funeral car that now tours the country in a semitrailer truck, because driving it down rail lines proved too costly.
During that 2013 replica project, organizers didn’t know the precise color to paint the window frames. Witnesses couldn’t agree if it was claret red or chocolate brown.
So they tracked down a Minnesota man who inherited a window frame from a relative who had secured it after the 1911 fire. The man with the window agreed to scrape off a paint sample in exchange for a piece of black bunting that once had been draped on the funeral car. He requested that his name be kept secret. Paint-chip tests showed that the window frames were deep maroon with four parts blacks to one part red.
And there was one more eerie coincidence. Remember that elaborate horse-drawn hearse used to display the coffin along the Lincoln funeral train’s 1,600-mile trek?
The hearse burned up in an 1887 livery stable in St. Louis. The livery’s owners had lent it for the funeral procession and kept it for 22 years until it was lost in the fire, along with three men and 200 horses.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org