Monday, April 13, 2009

The Lincoln Heritage Trail

An essay originally published in Springhouse.

When I lived in Louisville, KY during the 1990s, I went to work along U.S. 60 in an area called St. Matthews. High upon a particular phone pole, at the intersection of Lexington Ave. and Shelbyville Road, hung a Lincoln Heritage Trail sign. Several LHT signs stood along U.S. 60—east of town several miles stood historical markers commemorating the death of Lincoln’s paternal grandfather in that area—but I always liked this sign the best. It was faded, placed too high to be
LHT postcard from 1964
noticed easily, a relic of an earlier time. Finally it disappeared.

Growing up in Vandalia, I heard about Lincoln from a very early age. Eventually I learned that several family members lived there while Lincoln was a legislator at the old capital, and one ancestor even helped construct the statehouse where Lincoln served in Vandalia. Likewise, I grew up seeing LHT signs near my hometown, especially along US 51 and Illinois 185. When that US 60 sign disappeared, I decided to look into the trail. I found a brochure in an Indiana rest stop along I-64, but not much else. Two different addresses for LHT Associations, in Petersburg and Champaign, Illinois, were out of date; my queries returned “unable to forward.” Finally, in a Vandalia antique store, I found a tour guide, “Traveling the Lincoln Heritage Trail” from the Spring-Summer of 1972, which gave me some nformation.

The trail, a series of highways in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, tied together towns, parks, and locations associated with Lincoln. In Illinois the trail follows highways like U.S. 51, Illinois 121, Illinois 29 and 97, U.S. 25, U.S. 34, U.S. 150, Illinois 1, 14, 15, 185, and old U.S. 66, linking towns associated with Lincoln like Vandalia, Salem, Mt. Vernon, Carmi, Marshall, Charleston, Decatur, Lincoln, Springfield, Petersburg, and others. A southern “alternate” trail connects towns like McLeansboro, Carbondale, Chester, Cairo, Vienna, Harrisburg, Shawneetown, and others. A northern alternate branch connects Beardstown, Mt. Sterling, Quincy, Nauvoo, Monmouth, Galesburg, Peoria, Metamora, Bloomington, and others. Anyone taking a trip over a few days can visit New Salem, Lincoln sites in Springfield and Coles County, the Vandalia Statehouse, and other Illinois places—to say nothing of Indiana and Kentucky places, like his birthplace near Hodgenville, KY and his boyhood homes in Knob Creek, Kentucky and Spencer Co., IN.

Lincoln visited lots of other places, too. The LHT omits Alton, for instance, and some other Lincoln-Douglas Debate locations. I teach a course called “The Life and Times of Lincoln” at University of Akron. One of the books I refer to is Following in Lincoln’s Footsteps: A Complete Annotated Reference to Hundreds of Historical Sites Visited by Abraham Lincoln by Ralph Gary (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001). If anyone wants a very comprehensive guide to places Lincoln visited, you couldn’t go wrong with this nice text. Lincoln set foot in twenty-three states during his life, all but four (Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana) east of the Mississippi. East of the river, he visited all the states except Maine, Alabama, Florida, and the two Carolinas. Besides the DC area and places like Gettysburg, his notable historic sites are in the three LHT states. Another good book about his life travels is Don Davenport, In Lincoln’s Footsteps: A Historical Guide to the Lincoln Sites in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. I have the first, 1991 edition but I believe it is now available in a newer version.

I’ve driven some of the LHT, not nearly all of it. A few summers ago we visited the birth site—the enormous temple enclosing a pitiful shack always startles me. So do the bronzed logs and hearth—bronzed!—of his boyhood cabin site in Indiana. Last summer we took our daughter to Springfield and New Salem, places she’d never seen. When I lived in Little Egypt several years ago I followed the southern alternate trail a few times, enjoying favorite communities.

Traveling Lincoln’s life metaphorically is something else again. So many biographies and monographs consider his life. What was the relationship between him and his parents? Was his marriage positive, or a living hell? He was compassionate, tenderhearted, cruel, highly intelligent, crude, horribly depressed and lightheartedly humorous—who couldn’t be fascinated by such a complex, contradictory person, let alone someone who guided the country through its darkest times?

I wonder who travels the LHT today, consciously I mean, in order to seek out places pertinent to our greatest president. It’s the kind of leisurely, semi-educational vacation people would take when they weren’t in a big hurry. Everyone I know, however, is in a big hurry. I can imagine a car-full of whiney children, posed stiffly against a series of historical markers, their pictures preserved in a scrapbook later. Perhaps I’m being too nostalgic, though, for the signs are still there (except “my” sign in St. Matthews), beckoning us to seek after Lincoln’s heritage off the fast-paced interstates. If you decide to go, take your time, and have a good time learning! If you decide to take the whole LHT, send me a postcard!

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