Sunday, July 9, 2023

Robert Todd Lincoln saving President Lincoln's papers after the Chicago Fire in 1871.

Amid several moves, admission to the bar, marriage, and establishment of a law practice, Robert Lincoln safeguarded his collection of family memorabilia and letters. It is not known whether he kept the papers at his residence at 653 South Wabash Avenue (700 South Wabash, today) or at his law office, located in the Marine Bank Building at 154 Lake Street (132 West Lake Street today)
The ruins of the Marine Bank Building (built 1857) at 154 Lake Street just after the 1871 Chicago Fire. Robert Lincoln's law office was located in the building.

It is likely that the collection was somehow divided between the two. The bank building was a casualty of the Great Fire that destroyed much of Chicago's business district in 1871. The law firm had a fireproof vault that, in Lincoln's words. "Stood the fire," but the files not stored in the vault were destroyed., Several letters in the Robert Todd Lincoln Collection state that family papers were among those lost in the blaze. To one querist, Robert reported: "I am not the possessor of any autograph letters of my father. Everything of that kind owned by me was burned in the Chicago Fire." 

By 1873, Robert Lincoln was rebuilding and eager to regain the letters stored in Bloomington by David. "I get into my new office (at 31 Portland Block; 10 South Dearborn Street today) next week, he wrote in April, "and will have a vault room for the boxes with which you have been inconvenienced." Almost a year later, he had yet to pick up the papers. On February 18, 1874, Robert wrote that he had decided to turn the manuscripts over to his father's former secretaries, John Hay and John G. Nicolay, who were researching their biography of the former Chief Executive. 

"Nicolay and Hay," he wrote, "are both anxious to get to work on the papers you have at Bloomington." Robert proposed making a "hasty examination" of the papers at his Chicago office "so as to weed out anything purely private and then let Hay and Nicolay have the rest for their use." He urged Judge Davis to send the papers immediately.

Whatever wedding Lincoln attempted would have been accomplished over only a few weeks. By July, Nicolay and Hay had both the White House and Springfield manuscripts, less what Robert Lincoln considered "purely private." The papers stayed with Nicolay in Washington D.C., in various banks, vaults, and offices.
Abraham Lincoln, A History, by Nicolay & Hay. The Complete Set in PDF.
Volumes: 01, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06, 07, 08, 09, 10

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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