Twist of fate changed opulent car to hearse

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Twist of fate changed opulent car to hearse

May 25, 1995
By Pamela Cressey

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The sofa from the Lincoln railroad car. If original to the car, it may have been upholstered in either red or green plush fabric. Photo/courtesy Union Pacific Museum Collection
Although President Lincoln never sat on any of the furniture in the railroad car that was manufactured for him in Alexandria, everything was apparently ready for him. Lincoln’s assassination required a conversion of the car, designed as an “elegant drawing–room parlor,” into a hearse.

Hence little is known about the furnishings selected for the original interior design. Robert Slusser’s research into the Lincoln car’s construction, history and eventual fate, has heightened our awareness of the furnishings. His paper has been published by the Alexandria Historical Society, and a lengthier version, with photographs, will be available through the Alexandria Archaeology museum.

There is evidence that the president’s car sat awaiting Lincoln with four sofas, two of which were 7 or 7½ feet long. The other two were shorter, about 6 feet long. The sofas had hinged backs, which could be dropped for sleeping. It has been thought that the longer sofas may have been chosen to accommodate Lincoln’s 6-foot, 4-inch stature.

Years later, in 1925, an upholsterer for the Union Pacific Railroad composed a list from memory of the Lincoln car’s furnishings in 1868. The Union Pacific had acquired the car at auction in 1866; thus the upholsterer’s recollection was of the Union Pacific’s furnishings, which may not been the original ones.

The upholsterer, Joseph Kragskow, did record that two large armchairs were covered in red plush. Included with the four sofas, he also stated that the car contained two washstands, six dining room chairs, and one walnut table. Another source used by John H. White Jr. in The American Railroad Passenger Car indicated that the upholstery was dark green plush.

Whether covered with red or green plush, the dark wood furniture would have presented an elaborate scene in the wood-paneled car with crimson tufted walls, green silk curtains, oil paintings, coats of arms overhead on the clerestory, chandeliers and wall-to-wall carpeting. Two chairs and one small sofa are at the Illinois State Historical Library.

The Union Pacific Museum in Omaha has other items from the car, such as a bookcase, desk, two sofas, an armchair and paintings.

They do not, however, match the furniture in the Missouri Historical Society collection in St. Louis which was in the Lincoln car when it was exhibited in 1904.

The makers of the Lincoln furniture are not known to date. Will we ever know what could have awaited Abraham Lincoln had he stepped inside the car for a maiden voyage rather than attend Ford’s Theater 130 years ago?

Next week: the funeral train.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria city archaeologist.