Three months after his election in November 1860, Abraham Lincoln left Springfield for Washington, D.C. to become the 16th President of the United States. The special train that would take him there left the Great Western Depot on the rainy morning of Monday, February 11, 1861, the last day Lincoln spent in Springfield. This is the story of that depot and the attempts to preserve it.
The Great Western Railroad constructed the Depot in 1852. Fire heavily damaged the small structure in 1857, thus requiring extensive remodeling. Although this photograph was taken in 1887, the Depot had probably undergone few changes since the day Lincoln departed from here in 1861.
In 1867, a variety of small railroads including the Great Western Railroad, merged to form the Toledo, Wabash, and Western Railroad, which later became the Wabash Railroad. A year later, the railroad moved its Springfield passenger operations to an elaborate station at Tenth and Washington Streets, which served until 1938. The Wabash then operated the Depot as a freight house and, since business increased significantly in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Wabash added a second story in 1900. When the Wabash consolidated its operations in Decatur, Illinois, it sold the Depot. A variety of businesses used the building as a warehouse and storage space. Eventually, in the 1960s, a local group purchased the Depot with the intention of restoring it as a historic site.
A fire severely damaged the Depot on December 1, 1968. Sheriff's Deputies, checking the cells across the street in the Sangamon County Jail, saw flames shooting from the roof in the early morning. Damage was extensive and arson was suspected but not proven. One of the few items that escaped damage from the fire was the doorknob. Several hours after the fire, the State of Illinois Division of Tourism received it in the mail. A tourist from Mexico had visited the site nearly a month before. Without realizing that the site was closed, the visitor tried the door and the knob came off. Not wanting to leave the knob on the step where it might be lost or stolen, the visitor took it and mailed the knob back to Springfield where it arrived just in time to escape the effects of the fire.
Sangamon State University operated the Depot from 1977 to 1980, financing the operation through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Copley Press, owners of the Depot, donated a matching amount through Copley Charities. In addition to renovating the building, the University developed a new interpretive theme and used the site as a training ground for history students in site management and interpretation. The evaporation of funding forced Sangamon State University to discontinue operations. Copley Press accepted the role as Depot operator by having it open to visitation during the months of June, July, and August. It soon became obvious that there was sufficient interest in the Depot to justify a longer schedule. In 1987, The State-Journal Register, the corporate descendant of the newspaper Abraham Lincoln termed "always my friend," and Lincoln Home National Historic Site entered into a cooperative agreement to operate the Depot.
Another link in the chain tying the depot to its most illustrious departee occurred with the purchase of the depot from Copley Press in 2012 by Pinky Noll. Her husband, Jon Noll, a local attorney, is a distant descendant of William Herndon, Lincoln's last Springfield law partner.
After extensive repairs and renovation, the lower, museum level of the depot was reopened to the public on May 2, 2013. The mezzanine and upper level of the Depot, a later addition dating to 1900, has been turned into the home of Noll Law. Here up to three generations of Nolls carry on the tradition of law started in Springfield by their ancestor, Lincoln's last law partner. For information on hours and more history on the Depot visit the Depot's website, www.lincolndepot.org.
Last updated: April 10, 2015