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April 14, 2015
There was a time when this was the only way to get from New York to Chicago. The earliest locomotives were built for hauling, not for speed -- if making good time was your priority, you needed a horse. But a horse can't work day and night without a rest. There was also a limit on the size of a team that could move in harness, with a corresponding limit on the weight that could be moved. As soon as the Iron Horse arrived on the scene it began to improve, and rapidly: new and better boiler designs that could increase efficiency without increasing weight, refined management of traction and momentum where the wheels met the track, increased durability of the rails themselves as cast iron gave way to steel. Faster and mightier it grew -- speeds of 18, 25, 35 MPH to a dizzying 47 MPH in 1829 and an average of 60 MPH on stretches of a typical long distance trip in the 1860s. By the early 20th century experimental prototypes were achieving speeds of 150 MPH and better.

Today, April 14th, is the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's assassination. He lay in state in the Capitol Building until April 21st, when his coffin (and that of his little son Willie, who had died of typhoid fever early in his father's first term) was placed on a funeral train for a journey that would end in Springfield, Illinois. Through Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Trenton to New York, where I joined it in my mind as we left Penn Station and made our way past the same towns Lincoln's train passed so long ago: Yonkers, Dobbs Ferry, Irvington, Tarrytown, Ossining, Peekskill, West Point, Cold Spring, Fishkill, New Hamburg, Poughkeepsie, Hyde Park, Staatsburg, Rhinebeck, Barrytown, Tivoli, Germantown, Hudson, Albany, where the Lincoln Special left us to include Buffalo and other cities in its 1865 journey. Then, thousands stood in silence alongside the tracks to watch. Now, the sides of the tracks were deserted, a few passengers boarding or alighting into the darkness at each stop. We left New York at 3.40pm yesterday and arrived in Chicago at 9.30 this morning, a trip lasting less than twenty-four hours. It took the slain president's funeral train thirteen days.

The ancestor of our sleeping car, famously introduced in 1864 by John Pullman, introduced a level of comfort in rail travel unimagined in any land travel theretofore. Mr. Pullman travelled with Lincoln's train from Washington, and arranged to donate one of his luxurious cabins to Mrs. Lincoln for the long journey. So she must have seen what we saw, the little towns one by one. I imagine her parting the velvet curtains a but, peering out at the crowds of people standing in the dark to salute her dead husband. Her son Robert traveled with her; later, he would become president of the Pullman Company.

Trains take us into a communal past, when travel was close to the ground and we were not jerked from one time zone across three others in a matter of hours. There was a time when we approached our destinations gradually, with enough time to encompass our relocation and enough time to notice our fellow pilgrims. In the dining car, we find ourselves face to face at dinner with people we did not select as dinner companions -- this can be delightful or not, and one never knows in advance which it will be. But they are fellow humans, citizens as we are, most of them possessed of charming and annoying traits in roughly equal measures. Our paradoxical age, which proffers naked and uninvited self-disclosure in every arena while at the same time it tethers us to the fleshless isolation of our keyboards, fails to school us in the art of communal life. With us, communication is fast and wide, but it is not deep.

To dwell carefully upon a slain president's final journey home, upon his life, upon the terrible war through which he led his country, upon the beginnings and the endings of it, to travel through the countryside and imagine it as it was long ago -- who has time?
Copyright © 2019 Barbara Crafton
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