Saturday, May 4, 2019

The 150 year mystery of the exterior color of President Lincoln's funeral train car... Solved!

After being shot on April 14 at Ford’s Theatre by the actor and rabid Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth, he was transported to a boarding house across the street from the theater, where he died early the next morning. His body lay in state at the White House and the rotunda of the Capitol building before being loaded into the railroad car, which had been modified to transport Lincoln’s coffin and the coffin of his young son Willie, who had died of typhoid fever in 1862. Willie had been buried in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, but after his father’s assassination his coffin was removed and placed aboard the funeral train. The exterior sides bore a large painted crest of the United States. 
Lincoln's Funeral Train - 150 Year Memorial on May 02, 2015 - Car Medallion.
Lincoln's Funeral Train - 150 Year Memorial on May 02, 2015 - Train Wheel Trucks.
The special car, built to transport a living Lincoln and his cabinet, was one of the most elaborately appointed railroad vehicles ever made. The U.S. Military Railroads built the car and delivered it to the president in early 1865. It had upholstered walls, etched-glass windows, 16 wheels (adaptable to both standard and five-foot-gauge tracks) to ensure a smooth ride, and rooms for working and relaxation.
Some of the major stops on route from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois.
[CLICK MAP FOR FULL SIZE]
Interestingly, Lincoln’s funeral car was originally intended to be the official presidential railroad car—the equivalent of Air Force One today. The U.S. Military Railroads built the car and delivered it to the president in early 1865. Tragically, Lincoln never rode in it until his death.
President Abraham Lincoln's funeral car in Alexandria, Virginia.
President Lincoln's funeral train in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
By military order, Lincoln’s funeral procession consisted of no fewer than nine cars, including the funeral car, officers’ car, six passenger cars and one baggage car. The procession left Washington on April 21, 1865, and proceeded across the Northern states, stopping for formal funeral ceremonies in 12 major cities. Smaller communities organized numerous other memorial services along the train’s route. According to a contemporary newspaper report, during the 12-day journey, there were no accidents—an unusual distinction for such a long journey in a time when trains lacked many of today’s safety features.
President Abraham Lincoln's funeral car in Chicago, Illinois, which arrived in Chicago on May 3, 1865, then continued on to Illinois' state capitol.
After being passed between the military and a couple railroad companies, Twin City Rapid Transit Company President Thomas Lowry bought it in 1905. Lowry's intention was to fully rehabilitate the car and find a place to display it so that people could finally visit this car and see it in all of its former splendor. Lowry died before he could restore the car and it was passed to the Minnesota Federation of Women's Clubs which kept it in Columbia Heights near the intersection of 37th Ave NE and Jackson St.

In 1911, the Federation planned to move it for exhibit. Months before the move, a grass fire erupted on March 18, 1911 and engulfed the car.
Lincoln's Funeral Car after the 1911 Fire.
Though many details are known about the car, its color was believed to be lost to history. As no color photographs, lithographs or contemporary paintings of the car exist.

Some accounts (written long after the Civil War) described it as “chocolate brown,” others as closer to a claret, or red-wine color. As Wesolowski points out, chocolate bars didn’t exist at the time of the procession, so chocolate brown at the time would have referred more to Dutch chocolate, which was more reddish brown in color than the chocolate we think of today. It was said that historians were able to salvage only a metal coupling from the ashes, but a man from Minnesota was located who had inherited part of the original railcar’s window frame, perhaps one of the only pieces that survived the 1911 fire. 
Researchers analyzed a small piece of the window trim under high-powered microscopes, then scraped away microscopic flecks of paint and compared them with pigment records and national color standards of the time. Through this painstaking process, they managed to identify the color as a brownish-red; describes as “dark maroon.”

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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