There are many ways to follow in the steps of Abraham Lincoln during his time in Illinois and Indiana as a fun way to get away for the long Presidents' Day weekend. Many people don't know Lincoln lived in Indiana as a boy.
And both Illinois and Indiana abound with other presidential sites, homes and monuments, giving you a variety of choices to plan your trip.
In Illinois, the Lincoln journey includes visiting spots where he debated Stephen Douglas, his rival in love and politics; a fort where he served during the Black Hawk War; dining in a hotel he frequented; traveling by trolley to the home of the Civil War general Lincoln called “my man”; and sampling sour cream lemon pie in a building that was a courtroom during the president’s time.
There are trails you can follow such as Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail in Alton and Quincy’s Lincoln Heritage Trail, or you can create one on your own, determined by what you want to see. Might that include a stop at a watermelon monument? That’s up to you.
Presidential history abounds in Galena, a historic river port city located on the Mississippi River and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Midwest. Lincoln often visited, sometimes staying at the DeSoto House Hotel, the oldest operating hotel in Illinois, billed as the “Largest Hotel in the West” when it opened on April 9, 1855.
Lincoln spoke from the hotel’s Main Street balcony on July 23, 1856, in support of his friend, John Fremont’s bid for the presidency. Four years later, he was back again to rally the 15,000-plus people who had turned out to see him as he campaigned for the presidency.
When it comes to presidents, Galena is a two-fer, as it’s the home town of General Ulysses Grant, who, when he returned after the Civil War, was hosted at a reception for 2,000 at the DeSoto House. Later, when Grant was running for president, he used two of the hotel’s rooms for his campaign headquarters.
There’s always been dining as well as a tavern at the DeSoto. We’re sure Lincoln and Grant ate there, making a meal there a connection to their time in Galena. And while Lincoln didn’t drink, Grant certainly did — so a cocktail may be in order as well in the hotel’s Green Street Tavern.
Explore Lincoln’s connections to this charming city with its brick-lined streets by climbing aboard the Galena Trolley Tours for the 2.5-hour ride with several stops including Grant’s home where 90 percent of the furnishings are original to the house, and the 22-room, 5,000-square-foot Italianate Belvedere Mansion and Gardens. The latter was built in 1857 by J. Russell Jones, a steamboat captain and ambassador to Belgium.
Lincoln, when he became president, appointed Jones as U.S. marshal for the Northern District of Illinois and after his assassination, Jones served as a pallbearer in Lincoln's funeral train procession in Chicago.
Designed by Lorado Taft, who created several of Chicago’s beautiful fountains, several bas-relief sculptures commemorate the sixth Lincoln-Douglas debate. Located in Quincy’s Washington Park which, along with the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Interpretative Center, are stops on the city’s Lincoln Heritage Trail.
One block south of the square, tours are available at the recently restored 1835 Dr. Richard Eells House. The two-story red brick home, four blocks from the Mississippi River, was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Eells was helping a freedom-seeker named Charley who arrived in Alton after swimming across the Mississippi River from Missouri when the two encountered a posse of slave-catchers. Eells yelled at Charley to run and though he tried to get away, he was captured and returned to Missouri.
It was illegal to help slaves and Eells, who is credited with helping hundreds of slaves escape, was arrested and taken in front of Judge Stephen Douglas (yes, that Douglas), who fined him $400 (over $12,000 today). Eells appealed, and his case is the only documented Underground Railroad case to come before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Like Galena and Quincy, the city of Alton sits atop high bluffs along the Mississippi River. The final debate was held here, and its location is memorialized by bronze statues of Lincoln and Douglas.
One of the stops on the city’s Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail, the trail also leads to My Just Desserts, a restaurant in the old Ryder Building at 31 East Broadway. In Lincoln’s time, the edifice served as a courthouse and may have been the site of the politically charged Elijah Parish Lovejoy murder trial.
Lincoln was an ardent supporter of Lovejoy, the courageous publisher of an abolitionist newspaper who in 1837 was murdered by an angry pro-slavery mob after they threw his printing press into the river.
Lovejoy, buried in the Alton City Cemetery at Fifth Street and Monument Avenue, is said to haunt the area around his tombstone, and those who are there to pay respects often see his friendly ghost.
As for the Ryder Building, combine a little history with a slice of Mrs. Ledbetter’s Chocolate Pie or Sour Cream Lemon Pie in homage of both Lincoln and Lovejoy, both of whom gave their lives for freedom for all.
If you’re into quirky memorials, then a trip to Lincoln, the only town or city named after him before he became president, is in order. Also, it's a stop on Route 66 — a double historic bonus for both Lincoln fans and road trip aficionados.
Lincoln practiced law here for several years and in 1853 was asked to christen lots for the new town. The christening was somewhat unique. Lifting the cover from a pile of watermelons stacked on the ground, Lincoln sliced one open, and squeezed some of its juice into a tin cup and then used the juice to christen the town. Now, a giant watermelon marks the spot where the ceremony took place.
Apple River Fort State Historic Site
In 1832, about 1,000 Native American warriors and civilians crossed the Mississippi into northern Illinois in an attempt to regain land lost during a treaty signed in 1804. Leading the group was Black Hawk, a Sauk leader who went on the attack after their land was given away to gold prospectors. To protect pioneers, a fort was hastily assembled in just under a week near the Apple River.
Back in New Salem, Lincoln volunteered to serve in the Illinois Militia. Elected captain of his first company, Lincoln was present in the aftermath of two of the war’s battles, where he helped bury the militia dead, including those killed when Black Hawk attacked the fort at Apple River. The replicated for is now part of the Apple River Fort State Historic Site.
Indiana Presidents Day sites and sights
One of the best examples of Abraham Lincoln’s humble beginnings can be seen at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in, appropriately enough, Lincoln City, Indiana.
The Living Historical Farm, a replication of a farmstead similar to the one the Lincoln family inhabited during the 14 years they lived here, spans Lincoln’s years from ages 7 to 14.
There is a one-room log cabin, where Lincoln’s mother Nancy died (she’s buried nearby), and where Lincoln’s stepmother, Sarah Johnston — who married Tom Lincoln and moved with her three children into the Spencer County — most likely altered the course of history.
The new Mrs. Lincoln found two dirty, ill-kempt and unschooled children —Abe and his sister, Sarah — and a filthy cabin, and set to work making it a home and encouraging their learning. She believed in education, whereas Tom Lincoln, a talented carpenter, thought books were a waste.
From there, travel to Grouseland, the home of William Henry Harrison in Vincennes. The Lincolns visited the property when they were moving to Illinois. By the time they arrived, Harrison, who lived there when he was governor of the Northwest Territories from 1800-12, had already moved, but the gracious Georgian/Federal home built in 1804 — which was also the first brick home built in the state — most likely greatly impressed the Lincolns as it was far grander than any home in Spencer County.
Now a house museum, the home also served as the government center for the Indiana Territory as well as a fortress when needed and has been named by USA Today as one of 25 must-see buildings in Indiana, and 50 of The Most Famous Historic Houses in America by Country Living magazine.
It is fun to imagine the 21 year-old-Lincoln, a young man with few prospects and little education, admiring the home of Harrison, who would become the ninth president of the United States in 1840, and realize that 20 years later, Lincoln also would become president.
Fast-forward to 1889, when William Henry Harrison’s grandson, Benjamin Harrison, an attorney and brigadier general during the Civil War, was elected as the 23rd President of the United States.
His 16-room Italianate style house was built in 1874 at a cost of $24,000, or about $530,000 in today’s dollars. Now the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, the stately home, located in Indianapolis, is open to the public.
Just a short jaunt from the home, Harrison is buried in the lovely Crown Hill Cemetery — as are three vice presidents: Charles W. Fairbanks, Thomas A. Hendricks and Thomas R. Marshall.