Springfielder working on re-enacting Lincoln train trip

“Strong men fell on each other’s shoulders and sobbed like children. Songs of rejoicing turned to mourning dirges. Business was suspended …. The nation was shrouded in grief.”

— W. Emerson Reck

In addition to his vice presidential responsibilities at Wittenberg University, Springfielder W. Emerson Reck established a strong enough reputation as a Lincoln scholar that he was invited to speak to the Lincoln Fellowship of Wisconsin on April 16, 1989.

His moving address, “When the Nation said Farewell to Lincoln,” was delivered 124 years and one day after the president died after being shot the evening before at Ford’s Theater.

When the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination arrives next year, another Springfielder will play a part in re-enacting the literally and figuratively moving journey of Lincoln’s funeral train from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Ill.

The original route cut through Champaign County, including the communities of Woodstock and Urbana.

If it’s possible to describe 60 to 80 hours spent weekly on the same project as “volunteering,” former Springfield resident William Werst Jr. is now doing so from his home in Elgin, Ill.

The dedication Werst and his companions have to an authentic re-enactment goes far beyond retracing as closely as possible the April 21 to May 3, 1865, route from Washington to Springfield, Ill., with stops in Baltimore, Harrisburg, Pa., Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis and Chicago.

To wit:

1. The train will be pulled by a replica of the Leviathan, the railway predecessor of Air Force One and a steam locomotive whose first official duty was to transport the body of the slain president.

2. The exterior paint for the funeral car now under construction was formulated only after Wayne Wesolowski, whom Werst calls “the foremost scholar on the car,” had a chemist analyze a paint sample from the original, which was destroyed by fire in 1911.

“Wayne negotiated a paint fragment from one of the upper windows in the car last year,” Werst said. It’ a shade between chocolate and maroon.

The construction of the funeral car and an officers’ car that were part of the train is being supervised by David H. Kloke at Kloke Locomotive Works LLC, also of Elgin.

Kloke is the same man who was inspired to build the Leviathan after watching a documentary on Lincoln.

On a visit to Springfield, Werst was quick to point out that Lincoln not only was a railroad lawyer but was the president who “got the Pacific Railroad Act passed in 1862.

“When there was absolutely no reason to build a railroad, he could see the future.”

Werst himself fell in love with railroading while watching trains come and go from the Pennsylvania and New York Central (originally Big Four) depots in downtown Springfield and looking on as shorter trains hauled millions of magazines down to the depots from the Crowell Collier Publishing facility on West High Street.

His local rail recollections include “an old steam engine coming out on Washington Street” near the present library; the sleeper car that sat on the Pennsylvania tracks waiting to be taken to Xenia, then on to Chicago as its passengers dozed; a freight car being sucked down into an old section of underground Mill Run south of the station; and construction of the Detroit, Toledo and Ironton engine house on the city’s east side.

A member of the first graduating class of South High School in 1961, Werst graduated from Ohio State University in 1965 with a degree in dairy science, then spent more than three years in the Air Force during the Vietnam era.

Working on International Harvester’s farm equipment side, he and his family were transferred six times in seven years before landing in Elgin, where he worked six weeks before that facility closed and he decided to move no more.

He then set up the insurance office that Leviathan builder Kloke, who lives on the east edge of Elgin, happened to walk into in 2011

“His dream is to pull the train car out of Washington on April 15,” Werst said. “Everything came out of that.”

The executive historical consultant to the project is Miami County’s Scott D. Trostel, whose work on railroad research for many a live long day has produced a small boxcar of books.

“It’s shaping up to be quite a deal,” said Werst, during an interview at Un Mundo Cafe in sight of Springfield’s downtown tracks.

That week, he’d visited legislators and others in Washington D.C. and Columbus to make it a bigger deal. He’d also visited other communities, including Springfield, to gauge interest in sponsoring a visit by Leviathan in support of the project.

One obstacle, he said, is how to convey the enthusiasm of people who converged on the village of Wellington, Ohio, to sell out Leviathan’s short trips to Lorain.

“The word gets out, and they come,” he said.

An effort is underway to try to organize a similar trip from Urbana to Bellefontaine in late summer.

Those interested in helping Werst, Trostel and the others build up more steam for the project can go to www.TheLincolnFuneralTrain.com for details on tax-deductible donations.

Those interested in gauging what the original trip meant to the nation need only read a paragraph from Reck’s 1989 address.

“In its last 125 miles in Ohio, the funeral train chuffed along on the Great Central, often no faster than 10 miles an hour, as it gave residents of 21 towns and hamlets their last view of the car bearing the venerated remains of their martyr president. At 11 of them huge bonfires lit up the skies, revealing hundreds of mourners near the tracks, silent, heads uncovered, but waving flags or handkerchiefs while the bells in churches tolled in measured tones.”

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