Western New York Heritage

Abraham Lincoln in Buffalo and Western New York

View Print Version PDF

The catafalque and hearse used for both of Lincoln’s funeral processions in Buffalo was led by six magnificent white horses, draped in black mourning linen and attended by six black men on foot.  (Inset) The last known high quality photograph of President Abraham Lincoln, taken about one month before his assassination, March 6, 1865.

Author’s collection and Library of Congress

When Governor DeWitt Clinton connected the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean, via the Hudson River, by ceremoniously opening the Erie Canal in Buffalo in 1825, he unlocked the floodgates of transportation, commerce and influence. Almost immediately, Buffalo experienced a rapid growth in population, production and wealth. The city’s unique location and new-found prominence, in turn, paved the way for impacting national affairs.

Two and a half decades after the canal’s opening, Millard Fillmore became Buffalo’s first U.S. president when Zachary Taylor died in office. Then, in 1884, Grover Cleveland’s early successes as sheriff, mayor and governor vaulted him into the presidency, allowing the city to claim its second citizen to occupy the nation’s highest office and the only chief executive to serve non-consecutive terms. Not long thereafter, the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 brought President William McKinley to the region—his assassination in the Temple of Music and Theodore Roosevelt’s subsequent inauguration leaving the indelible marks of two more presidents on the region.

Students of local history are familiar with numerous sites recognizing these four presidents in and around Buffalo, most conspicuously the statues of Fillmore and Cleveland at City Hall, Niagara Square’s McKinley Monument and the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site. Less familiar, however, are the numerous regional connections to our 16th president. Though not typically included in a list of “Buffalo’s presidents,” Abraham Lincoln may have spent more time in Western New York (alive and deceased) than both McKinley and Roosevelt.

April 2015 marks the sesquicentennial of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, as well as marking the 150th anniversary of his final—albeit posthumous—visit to Western New York.  As such, it provides an appropriate opportunity to reflect upon the several visits made by Mr. Lincoln to the area, as well as the lasting impact he has had upon our heritage. 

1848: Lincoln's First Visit- Campaigning for Whigs

Abraham Lincoln was a young, 39-year-old former congressman when he first visited Buffalo in 1848, as part of a trip home from Washington, D.C.  Lincoln was campaigning for Whig presidential candidates Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, while also sightseeing with his family.

Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln passed through Western New York for the first time in 1848, following his single term in the U.S. Congress. His somewhat circuitous route from Washington, DC, to his home in Springfield, IL, was designed for sightseeing, as well as campaigning for Whig candidates Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore in this important presidential election year. After spending a few days making campaign speeches in New York City, Boston and other sites in New England, Lincoln stopped in Albany on September 24, where he met vice presidential candidate Millard Fillmore in person. Leaving Albany later that evening, he and his family embarked upon a 22-hour trek by rail to their next destination—Buffalo.

Although there is no known record of where the Lincolns stayed during this brief inaugural trip to Western New York, some educated guesses can be made.  When traveling with his wife and family, Abraham Lincoln typically engaged only the best accommodations. Thus upon arriving at the new railroad depot in Buffalo on the late afternoon of September 25, it is logical to surmise that he would have registered at one of the city’s finer hotels. Close to both the railroad depot and the business activity of the harbor was the United States Hotel at Pearl Street and The Terrace. The Mansion (not to be confused with the present one on Delaware) was located at Exchange and Main streets and would have been a logical choice as well.

Over the years, several historians—including Lincoln’s own law partner, William Herndon—have suggested that the family made a side excursion to see Niagara Falls during this 1848 visit.  Though certainly a logical assumption on the surface, a cursory study of the transportation timetables between Albany and Buffalo, between Buffalo and Niagara Falls and between Buffalo and Chicago rule out this possibility, however. In this first visit to the region, Buffalo provided a simple overnight stopover. For the continuing journey west, Lincoln chose to indulge his wife, who yearned to experience a Great Lakes excursion. After making appropriate inquiries, he decided to purchase passage on the recently-completed Globe, one of the most luxurious lake steamers of the day, for what became a 10-day voyage to Chicago. From there, a final overland leg completed the journey back to Springfield.

1857: Niagara Falls!

Despite lacking the time to visit Niagara Falls during their first visit to Western New York, Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln were intrigued by the reputation of this natural wonder. Therefore, they made it a point to include a stop at the Falls on their way to New York City in 1857. Leaving Springfield on July 22, the registrar from the Cataract House shows that they stayed there on July 24. The majesty of Niagara inspired Lincoln to take many notes, including a quip that was later recounted by William Herndon. “The thing that struck me most forcibly when I saw the Falls,” Lincoln penned, “[was] where did all that water come from?”

The 1857 trip was apparently part family vacation and part business trip, with an interesting sidebar. Lincoln had previously represented the Illinois Central Railroad in its defense against a lawsuit filed by McLean and Montgomery counties in Illinois to tax the railroad on its property within their boundaries. Despite winning the case on their behalf in the Supreme Court, the railroad still disputed Lincoln’s fee of $5,000. He hoped to receive that payment directly by appealing to the company’s Board of Directors in New York, which was the reason for the trip’s ultimate destination.  The directors snubbed Lincoln but, undaunted, he returned to Illinois, whereupon he requested the sheriff of McLean County file an execution to seize enough property of the railroad to satisfy his judgment. Fortunately for Lincoln, the company realized it was more politically advantageous to pay the fee.

Similar to the earlier stopover in Buffalo, where historians pondered whether or not the Lincolns visited Niagara Falls, some have mused on the question of if the Lincolns visited Buffalo on this 1857 trip to Niagara Falls. Given the time constraints and lack of evidence, it is unlikely they did so.

1861: An Historic Inaugural Celebration in Buffalo

The meeting between president-elect Lincoln and young Grace Bedell was memorialized in 1999 with these life-sized bronze statues in what is now known as Lincoln-Bedell Statue Park in Westfield, NY.

Author's Collection

As part of his campaign effort for the presidency, Abraham Lincoln again visited New England and New York City in the late winter of 1860, during which trip he made his famous speech at the Cooper Union in the latter destination.  His return trip to Illinois bypassed Buffalo, but included brief stops in Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties, including Olean, Little Valley and Dunkirk.

The election of 1860 saw the Springfield lawyer named the 16th President of the United States, in a purely sectional vote.  Southern reaction was quick in coming.  By the time the president-elect boarded his inaugural train at Springfield’s Great Western Railroad depot on the day before his 52nd birthday, seven states had already proclaimed their secession from the Union. Leaving his hometown with a heavy heart and full cognizance of the daunting task before him, Lincoln embarked on a 12-day whistle stop train tour on his way to Washington, DC, that included several stops in Western New York. Most of the regional stops were brief, with barely more than a wave to the throngs in small towns, but one of them provided the most widely-reported anecdote of the entire trip and one which became an indelible part of Lincoln folklore.

Shortly after his nomination, on October 15, 1860, 11-year-old Grace Bedell of Westfield, NY had penned a letter to the lanky candidate, urging him to grow a beard. “I have got 4 brother's and part of them will vote for you anyway and if you will let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you,” she wrote. “You would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.” When his inaugural train left Cleveland on Saturday, February 16 and crossed into New York, it paused long enough in Westfield to refuel the engines and for Lincoln to engage the crowd.  Commenting on his newly whiskered visage, he recalled Grace’s letter. “Some three months ago, I received a letter from a young lady here,” he explained. “It was a very pretty letter, and she advised me to let my whiskers grow, as it would improve my personal appearance; acting partly upon her suggestion, I have done so; and now, if she is here, I would like to see her.” Grace was promptly escorted to the train’s platform and, according to one contemporary newspaper account, the future president gave her “several hearty kisses . . . amid the yells of delight from the excited crowd.” Today there is a wonderful bronze sculpture of the two, along with an historical marker, in a small memorial park at the intersection of routes 394 and 20 in Westfield.

As the train continued on to Buffalo, pausing briefly in Dunkirk, Silver Creek and Hamburg, the crowds lining the railroad increased dramatically. When the New York Central arrived at the Exchange Street Depot at 4:30 p.m., Lincoln was greeted by Millard Fillmore and a contingent of local dignitaries. A massive crowd, estimated at 10,000, had managed to get inside the depot and to the track platform, hoping to catch a glimpse of the president-elect and his entourage.  Things turned ugly as the mob became unruly, overpowering the police and militia troops assigned to security. Miraculously, there were only a few injuries.  Lincoln himself was pressed and jostled around, but was otherwise uninjured.  One of his traveling party, a Major David Hunter, was not so lucky, however, and sustained a shoulder injury when we was pressed against a wall. In addition, several Buffalo newspapers reported that an older man from Lancaster suffered broken ribs when he became jammed in a doorway.

The arrival of Lincoln’s Inaugural train in Buffalo produced a large and chaotic crowd.  This scene from the March 2, 1861 edition of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper depicts the scene outside the American Hotel upon the arrival of the president-elect.

Library of Congress

Despite being unprepared, outnumbered and overwhelmed by the massive number of people, a small number of soldiers eventually managed to contain the crowd long enough carve out a path for Lincoln and a few others to board his carriage. The carriage procession was also a victim of the overzealous crowds and poor planning by the reception committee, but eventually the entourage proceeded up Exchange St. to Main and then east to their destination: the American Hotel, located between Eagle and Court streets.

Shortly after his arrival, the president-elect appeared on a balcony overlooking the street with Millard Fillmore and other dignitaries.  From here he briefly addressed the crowd in a hoarse and travel-weary voice, before moving inside. In an interesting sidebar, among the crowd listening to Lincoln’s quiet words was a 23-year-old attorney named Grover Cleveland.  Thus a former president, president-elect and a future president shared the same scene for a few brief moments.  At 7:30 that evening, the president-elect received visitors in the main hall on the hotel’s second floor, while Mrs. Lincoln, accompanied by son, Robert, received others in the first floor Ladies’ Parlor.

The following morning, Lincoln attended church services with Mr. & Mrs. Fillmore at the First Unitarian Church, at the corner of Eagle and Franklin streets. Afterwards, the trio drove back to the American Hotel to pick up Mrs. Lincoln, then proceeded to the Fillmore residence on Niagara Square at Delaware Avenue for lunch before returning to the hotel around 2:00.

During their 1861 stay in the American Hotel, the Lincoln family used an apartment that had been vacated for the occasion by Mr. & Mrs. Richard Sherman.  Having removed their other belongings, Mrs. Sherman left her autograph book on a table in the apartment, in the hope that the president-elect would choose to sign it.  Lincoln not only made the first entry, he took the book to Washington to obtain additional signatures, before returning it to its owner.

Buffalo History Museum

That evening, Fillmore and acting Mayor Asaph Bemis escorted Lincoln to St. James Hall, on the south side of Eagle St. between Main and Washington, to hear a lecture on the plight of the Native Americans by Father John Beeson. Having lived among native tribes in Oregon, Beeson was on a lecture tour raising awareness, urging legislation and perhaps raising money to improve their conditions. The Buffalo Morning Express reported the next morning that “Mr. Lincoln listened with much apparent interest in Father B’s recitation of the wrongs the Indians suffer, unredressed by the government….” St. James Hall would figure prominently in Lincoln’s future, but in a completely different set of circumstances than in February of 1861.

Lincoln’s train, the New York Central’s Dean Richmond, left Buffalo on Monday morning, February 18, earlier than planned, ostensibly to avoid large crowds and a repeat of the debacle of his Saturday’s arrival. The 36-hour visit in Buffalo received mixed reviews in newspapers, both local and national. Some commented politely about his looks and demeanor; and others, including the Buffalo Daily Courier, criticized Buffalo’s lack of organization and decorum and ridiculed the ostentatious parade and displays which were akin to a “triumphal procession.”

1865: Funeral Train at Buffalo

As the Dean Richmond departed the Exchange Street Depot on February 18, 1861, few people could have guessed that it would be the last time the future president would visit Buffalo alive.  As is well known, however, Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth on Good Friday, April 14, 1865 while attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater. He passed in the early morning hours of April 15, shocking a nation that had only recently begun to celebrate the end of the Civil War.

The United States Military Railroad delivered this private railroad car, named the United States—the period equivalent of Air Force One—to President Lincoln in early 1865. Ironically, Lincoln never used the car while alive, but following his assassination it was modified to serve as a funeral car for the president and his son, Willie.

Library of Congress

As the president lay dying in a back bedroom of William Petersen’s house across the street from the theater, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton assumed temporary authority of the government. Stanton worked throughout the long night, interviewing witnesses, telegraphing police officials and closing off potential escape routes, determined to catch Booth and his co-conspirators. In addition, over the next 24 hours he initiated the very complex arrangements for the memorial services and funeral train. There were many iterations of the train route, taking into consideration appeals of the Springfield and Illinois delegations, the multiple railroad lines and the wishes of Mrs. Lincoln. For her part, Mary Todd originally wanted a direct, less ceremonial route to Chicago for a burial.  In the end, however, she reluctantly consented to an expanded version, and late on the evening of April 19 additional cities—including New York and Buffalo—were added to the funeral train’s route.

The fact that Buffalo was not originally scheduled to receive the funeral train provides the reason for why the city actually held two funeral processions. Thinking Buffalo would be bypassed, city leaders were not content with merely holding church services to memorialize their martyred president. Thus, they resolved to organize a full-fledged procession through the city on April 19, the same day as the state funeral in Washington, DC, It was a mock funeral, with a hastily-built catafalque and hearse, led by six magnificent white horses, draped in black mourning linen and attended by six black men on foot.

(Left) The New York Central Railroad issued a special schedule for Lincoln’s funeral train, delaying regularly scheduled traffic so that the train and its pilot engine could proceed without impediment. (Right) Mourners throughout the country donned ribbons of various design in the days and weeks following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

Author's collection

The procession included no less than 40 different military regiments, bands and singing societies, civic and religious groups, citizens and strangers. The nearly two mile parade route began at Niagara Square from whence it proceeded to Main Street, then north to Tupper, along Tupper to Delaware, then to Niagara before returning again to Main, then proceeding down to Terrace, where prayers and music and eulogies were given. Thousands of mourners lined the route holding banners, images and signs, singing hymns and offering prayers. All that was missing were the actual remains of the fallen president.

Coming off such a spectacle, it must have come as a great shock to Former President Millard Fillmore and other city leaders later that evening to learn that Lincoln’s funeral train would, indeed, be making a stop in Buffalo for 15 hours on April 27. Without hesitation, they decided to recreate the same procession eight days later.

April 27, 1865…The Second Funeral Procession

 This map shows the route taken by President Lincoln’s funeral procession on April 27, 1865.  Starting at the Exchange Street depot, the procession traveled through Niagara Square, up Delaware Avenue and ended at Main and Eagle streets, in front of St. James Hall.

Western New York Heritage collection

Lincoln’s funeral train left Washington D.C. on April 21, retracing to a large degree the inaugural route taken from Springfield four years before. The Lincoln Special carried Lincoln’s body along with the remains of his son, Willie, who was 11 years old when he died in the White House in 1862. There were many other dignitaries, military escorts and security personnel who accompanied the car, which was bedecked with black crepe festoons, American flags and a large picture of Lincoln on the front of the locomotive. Ten minutes ahead was the “Pilot Engine,” signaling the Special’s impending arrival at each stop.

The train headed north from the capital, with major stops in Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, before arriving in New York City. From New York they traveled the Hudson River Railroad Line and were actually ferried across the Hudson River, arriving in Albany at 10:55 a.m. on April 25. During the five-hour ceremonies there, they transferred to the New York Central Railroad system, which added eight more cars to the train. At 4:00 p.m. the Special left Albany on its 15-hour journey to Buffalo.

Meanwhile, former President Millard Fillmore and 11 other designated committeemen left Buffalo for Batavia on the evening of April 26, in order to greet the funeral train and accompany it to Buffalo. According to the New York Central’s Special Time Table, the Pilot Engine arrived the next morning at 5:08, followed by the 10-car Cortege Train at 5:18.  They arrived in Buffalo less than two hours later. For the trip from Albany, the funeral train was pulled by the Dean Richmond, the same locomotive that had brought Lincoln to Buffalo four years earlier.

Upon the train’s arrival, a second funeral procession was staged, including the same hearse, escorts and nearly all marchers as the one held on April 19, though using a somewhat shortened route. From the Depot on Exchange Street the parade traveled along Main, Niagara, Delaware and Tupper, before returning down Main to Eagle Street, where the coffin was carried into St. James Hall for viewing. Tens of thousands, many wearing badges with likenesses of Lincoln, lined the streets to view the hearse and procession. With all business suspended, virtually every building, house and rooftop was heavily draped with their varied expressions of mourning.

Lincoln’s coffin is loaded into the catafalque in front of St. James Hall, April 27, 1865.  This view looks south on Main Street, towards the intersection with Niagara Street.

Buffalo History Museum

St. James Hall opened to the public at 10:00 a.m. on April 27, and it was reported that 20,000 people had solemnly passed his open casket by noon. At that time, the Common Council and other city officials, headed by Mayor William Fargo and followed by civil and military officers and other dignitaries, paid their respects. Again, former president Millard Fillmore and future president Grover Cleveland were among the mourners. It was estimated that nearly 100,000 people made their way through the hall in an orderly fashion, with much credit given to the Union Continentals and local police force for maintaining order efficiently and respectfully throughout the day.  The scene presented a stark contrast to the chaos of the inaugural visit.

Finally, at 8:10 that evening, the casket was closed and prepared for its return to the funeral car. An enormous, yet somber crowd formed along the route from St. James Hall to the depot. Many wept and prayed as Miller’s Band played solemn funeral dirges and they watched the president’s casket board the train before departing Buffalo at 10:10 p.m.

A Presidential Legacy

Buffalo druggist, Julius Francis, devoted his life to the memory of the 16th president and led the effort to have Abraham Lincoln’s birthday declared a legal holiday.

Western New York Heritage collection

Buffalo’s presidential legacy is arguably more significant than any other metropolis, with the exception of Washington, D.C. No other city in the nation has produced two sitting presidents, and the association with the McKinley assassination and the subsequent inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt only enhances the presidential legacy.  What is more, an examination of Western New York as a whole produces an even larger list of noteworthy figures in the history of the nation’s highest office. Royalton’s Belva Lockwood was the first woman to run for president in 1884 on the Equal Rights Ticket, while Lockport’s William Miller and former Buffalo Bill, Jack Kemp, were the GOP vice-presidential candidates in 1964 and 1996, respectively.

Amid this impressive list of White House and near-White House connections, many are unaware of Abraham Lincoln’s substantial presence in Buffalo and Western New York. Traveling through Buffalo in 1848 while campaigning for Fillmore, visiting Niagara Falls in 1857, a 36-hour stay on his Inaugural trip in 1861 and two sorrowful funeral processions in 1865 all attest to his significance to the region. Extant physical reminders of Lincoln’s legacy are plentiful throughout the region. They range from the statues in Westfield, Buffalo’s Delaware Park and on the portico of the Buffalo History Museum, to place names, such as Lincoln Parkway, Lincoln Road and Lincoln Avenue.  One of the region’s more unique Lincoln “monuments” is the “Lincoln Maple” in the Town of Hannover.  Planted by the children of Balltown School in April 1865 as a singular gesture of mourning, the tree still stands 150 years later.  And given the connections between Western New York and the 16th president, it is perhaps only fitting that the earliest known commemoration of Lincoln’s birthday occurred in Buffalo in 1874, the work of druggist Julius Francis, who devoted himself to the task of establishing February 12 as a legal holiday.

The full content is available in the Spring 2015 Issue.