Lincoln rail car had several unique touches
May 14, 1995
By Pamela Cressey
I love to experience the past, to jump into an archaeological site and feel the dirt, the artifacts. Yet rarely have I been as close to my subject as I am today: I am sitting in a historic railroad car while writing about one. Thanks to my father, we are bumping along in the 1923 Pullman car Dover Harbor. Lovingly resorted by the Washington, D.C., Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, the Dover Harbor provides the graceful ambience of an earlier day.
I have images from 1930s and 1940s movies about what it was like to travel in such cars, but I have no such moving images to evoke the feeling of the Lincoln presidential railroad car. We have only a few still photographs and descriptions, sometimes contradictory, from the builders. Perhaps we are missing this texture of the times because the train did not carry a live president to special functions, but a dead man to Illinois for burial.
The car was constructed in Alexandria the United States Military Railroad shops, based on the design of Benjamin P. Lamason, superintendent. Although there are eyewitness accounts of the car’s construction, a few testimonials are left to us by the foreman, W.H.H. Price, and assistant master car builder Sidney King. Bob Slusser, in his recent study of Lincoln car published in Alexandria Chronicles, notes that there are unsubstantiated statements that the car’s design suited Lincoln’s ideas.
Lamason designed the car using a general pattern of the Pennsylvania Railroad cars. It was 48 feet long, with a raised roof and 16 clerestory windows plus 12 main windows on each side. Rather than the standard single truck at each end, two four-wheel trucks were joined; thus an almost complete row of Lamason’s specially designed ornate axle-box pedestals could be seen.
The car also had a large observation platform, as well as an advanced heating system. Lamason included polished, brass-capped nuts for the bolster tie rods on the car’s sides above the trucks. Apparently Lamason “devoted weeks of effort” to designing these special attributes.
Although the Lincoln car had little exterior ornamentation, it was painted a rich chocolate brown “rubbed out to a fine finish with oil, rotten stone and the bare hand.” A 5- by 2-foot metal oval had a painted U.S. coat of arms, and gold striping accented the car body and clerestory.
Next week: The Lincoln car’s interior.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria city archaeologist.
Caption: The Lincoln car, photographed after the completion in 1865 in the U.S. Military Railroad complex in Alexandria. The engine houses are in the background.
Photo/courtesy National Museum of American History