Stopping By: Tolono marks Lincoln's last stop in Illinois

Stopping By: Tolono marks Lincoln's last stop in Illinois

TOLONO – Seven score and eight years ago, the area around the intersection of Tolono's two railroad lines was packed with central Illinois residents straining to catch a glimpse of the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln.

It was on this spot where Lincoln is said to have given his last formal speech in Illinois, from the back of a train, on Feb. 11, 1861.

Lincoln's body wouldn't return to the Prairie State until after the president was struck down by an assassin's bullet in Ford's Theater.

The marker commemorating Lincoln's 1861 speech is easy to find on the east side of U.S. 45 just south of the FS self-service gas station. There's plenty of free parking for this roadside attraction.

On my visit, a U.S. flag and Illinois state flag fluttered in the wind overlooking the memorial.

I took a seat on one of two concrete benches facing a huge copper-colored stone adorned with a sculpture of Lincoln's face. The stone sits atop a concrete pedestal.

The only sound was a lone crow flapping around looking for something to eat. But if you listened very carefully, you could almost hear the bearded President-elect address the residents of Champaign County in between puffs of a massive steam engine locomotive.

But if you want to see the actual site where Lincoln spoke, you have to walk about a half block southeast of the monument.

Susan Plackett, the president of Businesses Encouraging and Supporting Tolono, showed me where the train stopped for Lincoln's speech. Tolono's old train depot was torn down years ago, but a large concrete platform remains not far from the railroad tracks.

Plackett has been helping lead efforts to refurbish and upgrade Tolono's Lincoln Marker as part of the Looking for Lincoln program. Plackett's organization, the Tolono village board and the state are sharing the $4,500 cost of the project.

"We took the old shrubbery, we put new concrete around it to look more like a monument," she said.

"We expect to have busloads of people coming here in 2009, so they can stand on the new concrete. We added six new bushes and the Daughters of the American Revolution installed a new flagpole."

Plackett said the Lincoln Marker is a source of pride for the people of the Tolono area.

"Matt Wilson, owner of Total Concrete from Savoy, worked hard to ensure that the concrete project was completed by winter, and Sandy Dowler of the Tolono Historical Society designed the upgrade. My husband Kent and I picked up and planted the trees and installed the flag pole on a dreary, dank and drizzly day. It is exciting to see how many people love the Lincoln history here in Tolono."

Plackett said the village plans to rededicate the marker at 10 a.m. Feb. 7.

The late Tolono historian Marion Moore once told me in an interview published in The County Star he knew of at least 19 instances in which Abraham Lincoln visited this southern Champaign County community, usually to stop at the Union Station depot to change trains.

Lincoln's stepmother lived in Charleston, so he took one train from Springfield to Tolono before transferring to another south to Coles County.

"In the early days of the railroads long waits at the depot were not uncommon," Moore told me in an interview some two decades ago. "Occasionally, he was known to pitch horseshoes with one of Tolono's pioneers, Ernest Johns."

An Illinois Central Railroad freight clerk, William Mohrmann, wrote in his journal that Lincoln frequently played chess with the depot's telegraph operator, A. C. Waterhouse. Mohrmann would often watch the chess game from the side of the table.

"On one occasion Lincoln had his little son Tad along," Mohrmann wrote. "While his father was pondering over his next move, Tad would slip away and rattle the telegraph instruments. When Lincoln noticed this, he would say, 'Don't do that, dear son,' which would stop him for a few minutes and then he would be at the instruments again."

According to Moore, Lincoln made his second to last visit to Tolono on Jan, 31, 1861. Since the future president had several hours to wait for the next train, he visited the Marion House, which former Tolono Mayor and village historian Bill Kirby described as a combination restaurant and hotel.

There Lincoln visited with Adalaide Chaffee, the 16-year-old daughter of Tolono's first doctor.

The young woman ran up the staircase to the second floor, where she encountered Lincoln. Moore interviewed Chaffee before her death in 1932.

"Lincoln was sitting in a low rocker on the opposite side of the room," Moore quoted her in his book, "Tolono Topics." "He immediately started to rise, and it seemed he would never get up, as he was so tall. But once up it was no time until he advanced half the length of the room to meet me."

The teen girl shook hands with Lincoln, who asked her if she was related to a Colorado congressman with the same last name.

Kirby said that rain was falling hard in Tolono as Lincoln's train arrived for his speech at about 11 a.m. on Feb. 11, 1861.

"In spite of all the rain and drizzle and darkness, people arrived early to catch a glimpse of the president," Kirby said.

According to Kirby, more than 1,000 residents waved handkerchiefs to greet the president-elect while village leaders shot off a cannon to salute him.

Moore said in his history book that Lincoln was led to the last car of his special Presidential train, where he mounted the rear platform and began to speak. A little girl was screaming that she couldn't see Lincoln, so the baggage master lifted her high above the crowd.

Lincoln delivered a 20-minute speech focusing on two issues: slavery and saving the union.

"Remember, that by this time six states had already seceded from the union, so Lincoln knew he had his work cut out for him," Kirby said.

"We've been told that Lincoln originally may have intended to deliver the speech he gave here in Danville, but he was so overwhelmed by the crowd that he presented it one stop early in Tolono," Plackett said.

Since Lincoln's train arrived four minutes late in Danville, Lincoln is said to have only given informal remarks to friends and supporters before moving on to Washington, D.C.

Only a few quotes from Lincoln's Tolono speech survive today, and they are immortalized on a plaque affixed to the stone at the roadside marker:

"I am leaving you on an errand of national importance, attended, as you are aware, with considerable difficulties. Let us believe as some poet has expressed it, 'Behind the cloud the sun is still shining.' I bid you an affectionate farewell."

A Danville newspaper editor named Clint Clay Tilton described the end of Lincoln's speech.

"A sob went through the listening crowd as the broken voice asked their prayers," Tilton wrote. "There they stood, these townsmen of Abraham Lincoln, with bared heads, the raindrops mingling with their tears, as the bell on the funny looking engine clanged its warning of the beginning of the Great Adventure."

According to Kirby, the original Lincoln marker stone was dedicated on July 11, 1932. The stone was rededicated in 1989. The Tolono Lions Club moved the marker to its current location in 1993.

It doesn't take very long to visit Tolono's Lincoln marker, but it is a pleasant stop to make for motorists traveling through Tolono on U.S. 45.

According to Kirby, Lincoln was not the last president to speak from this location. Harry S. Truman spoke from the rear of his train at the same site while campaigning for re-election in 1948.

If you go

What: Lincoln Historical Marker

Where: U.S. 45, approximately one block south of Holden Street, Tolono.

Directions: From Champaign, take U.S. 45 south for about 9 miles to Tolono. After you pass the stop light, continue about one more block to an Illini FS gas station. The historical marker is on the east side of the road just south of the station.

Open to the public 24 hours a day.

Admission is free.

If you wish to contribute to the refurbishment of the marker, donations may be sent to: Tolono's B.E.S.T. Lincoln Project, P.O. Box 433, Tolono IL 61880-0433