Lincoln may have found rail car too sumptuous

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Lincoln may have found rail car too sumptuous

May 18, 1995
By Pamela Cressey

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President Lincoln’s rail car was described by a building as “magnificent,” though Lincoln reputedly refused to ride in it. Photo/National Archives
“It was really magnificent for those days, and every available convenience was used, but present travelers would consider it very common.”

That was Sidney King’s recollection of the Lincoln presidential rail car. King, who had been assistant master car builder at the United States Military Railroad complex in Alexandria, was speaking with the benefit of 40 years of hindsight when he was interviewed in 1903.

Actually, it was the design of the Lincoln car that began in 1863; the construction was not completed until 1865. Benjamin Lamason, the superintendent of the Alexandria car shops, personally designed the car. Neither his specifications nor the requirements from the White House are known today.

There is some evidence, however, that President Lincoln himself provided guidance. Robert Slusser’s new research paper, published by the Alexandria Historical Society, tracks down this quote from a master mechanic: “The car was built as nearly as possible to suit Mr. Lincoln’s idea and was so peculiar in construction as to give it individual characteristics.” But is this true?

Unfortunately, the quote is attributed to a Union Pacific Railroad mechanic in 1892. He was far removed from the actual construction process, and viewed the Lincoln car years later when it was owned by Union Pacific. There are conflicting descriptions of the car’s interior, which Lincoln may have influenced. It is clear, however, that the car was not self-sufficient. Other rail cars meant to travel with the Lincoln car would have contained a kitchen and supplies. The interior of the car was 42 feet long and divided into several spaces. There appears to have been a parlor, a dining room (or second parlor) and the president’s personal stateroom. An aisle provided access to the rooms. One recollection also includes a washroom. Apparently the stateroom was in the center of the car, thought to be the most comfortable place for railway travel.

Accounts indicate that the car had black walnut and oak woodwork. A crimson silk with a tufted pattern upholstered the walls. The matching head lining was gathered into a center rosette.

Painted zinc white with the United States coats of arms, the clerestory provided light from 16 windows. Green silk curtains were tied back at the main windows, while oil paintings adorned wall panels. Cut-glass chandeliers and wall-to-wall carpeting completed the car’s appointments.

Magnificent? Yes, but king also reported that Lincoln “utterly refused to accept the car or ride in it during his lifetime.” Was it too magnificent for a popular president?

Next week: What furniture was in the Lincoln’s car?

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria city archaeologist.