Lincoln railroad car became historical ‘sleeper’
April 20, 1995
By Pamela Cressey
The northeast portion of the United States Military Railroad complex, at South Alfred and Duke streets. A railroad car intended for the use of President Abraham Lincoln was built here between 1863 and 1865. Drawing courtesy Alexandria Archaeology
April 14 marked the 130th anniversary of an event that deeply affected America and set in motion a unique Alexandria artifact story. Robert Slusser, a volunteer with the City of Alexandria’s archaeology program, has recently completed his research on this amazing story.
April 14,1865, was Good Friday in Washington, D.C., and the Lincolns planned to attend Ford’s Theater on 10th Street. Although the president did not want to attend the theatre that night, he said to his wife on the way, “I have never felt so happy in my life.” Soon after, people were shouting in the streets, “Abraham Lincoln has been shot!”
This sounds like a Washington, D.C., story that has nothing to do with Alexandria. But the assassination of Lincoln propelled an Alexandria artifact into history and eventual obscurity. Over the next few weeks, I will reveal the manufacture, uses and destruction of an object once associated with Alexandria. But first we must go back in time to a bit before the assassination. During Alexandria’s occupation by Union forces in the Civil War, the United States Military Railroad (USMRR) operated the Orange and Alexandria Railroad roundhouse complex near Duke and South Patrick streets. The rail yards were surrounded by a stockade erected in the early years of the war. The USMRR also constructed numerous buildings to build and maintain rail cars delivering supplies for Union military campaigns in the South. The staff also designed and built bridges, trestles and modular housing, and, according to the soon-to-be-published article of Slusser’s in Alexandria Chronicles, the publication of the Alexandria Historical Society, “invented tools for ripping up and bending rails and devices for straightening bent rails.”
Of all the interesting items designed and made in the USMRR rail shops, one stands out: Between November 1863 and February 1865, a rail car was constructed here for the use of President Lincoln. It was, Slusser says, the “only railroad coach ever built by the United States Government for the use of a president in his executive duties.”
Mr. Slusser has discovered that there are virtually no government records that document the request order, supply vouchers, construction plans or financing of the car, or even its furnishing. He has undertaken personal communication with dozens of people across the country to piece together the story of President Lincoln’s railroad car.
Although Mr. Slusser’s research provides a full chronicle of the car, he concludes: “This elusiveness of firm information about the birth of the car continues to cloud information about almost every aspect of its ensuing life.”
Follow the stories of the USMRR complex and the Lincoln railroad car over the next few weeks in “Alexandria Artifacts.”
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria city archaeologist.