City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Jan 11, 2011 10:33 AM
Venerable railroad car suffered a fiery demise
June 29, 1995
When Thomas Lowry purchased the Lincoln car in 1905, he envisioned that the city of Minneapolis would restore its magnificence as a museum. As president of a local railroad company and the Twin City Rapid Transit Co. streetcar lines, he probably had an affection for the car.
The Minneapolis City Council did not share his view, so Lowry moved the car to a park near his Columbia Heights development as an attraction. A true streetcar suburb, Columbia Heights needed “a drawing card,” as the local paper put it. Apparently the faded old car did not attract home buyers; by 1911 the suburb’s population was still sparse.
A boy burning brush behind his house at 35th and Architect’s Avenue in the Heights irrevocably altered the Lincoln car’s destiny. On March 18, 1911, the fire was fanned by high wind and swept across 10 blocks. With most men at work, the boys and women of the Heights fought the fire to save their house. Realizing at the last moment that the Lincoln car was endangered, boys fought the flames with coats and blankets.
The result? The local newspaper headline read: “Relic of Martyred President Reduced to Blackened Framework of Wood and Iron.”
Ironically, Lowry’s heirs had just arranged to give the car to the state federation of women’s clubs for preservation. Instead, people were allowed to tear off pieces of the charred wood as souvenirs. Was that the end of the line for the Lincoln car? Yes, as a tangible object. But it lived on as a symbol. Its furniture was collected by various museums and its history was studied by scholars. And just this year, a phrase was said again for the first time in 130 years: “The Lincoln train is coming!”
Wayne Wesolowski, a chemistry professor at Illinois Benedictine College, has spearheaded the ambitious project of building a scale model exhibit of the funeral as it appeared in Springfield, Ill. The model exhibit at doll-house scale (1 inch to 1 foot, 1 inch) took four and one-half years to build – thousands of hours of work by Wesolowski and his son Wayne.
The exhibit includes models of the Lincoln car, the locomotive “Nashville,” the hearse pulled by horses, the coffin and honor guards (the latter crafted by Ron Lofman). The project included extensive research, scale engineering drawings, crafting and modifying each element. For instance, the car’s roof vents were made from pull tabs found on bottles of canola oil. The undercarriage required making 725 parts, including brake rigging and springs. Frosted windows were made, and the presidential seal meticulously painted.
Will the Lincoln car ever return to Alexandria? Wesolowski is interested in the idea of bringing the exhibit to our town. In the meantime, the Alexandria Model Project has chosen the roundhouse area as its first focus. Interested in model railroad and structure building? Call Ruth Reeder at 838-4399 about the next modelers’ meeting.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.
Caption: Wayne Wesolowski with his model of the Lincoln car, constructed as part of an exhibit commemorating the 130th anniversary of the presdient’s funeral train. Photo/courtesy Ed Bunting