The Peekskil train depot as it appeared in 1965. The Lincoln Society in Peekskill and the City of Peekskill are now working to restore the train depot to it's past glory along with the creation of a Lincoln Museum at the site.
by John J. Curran
PEEKSKILL CITY HISTORIAN
Tiny Peekskill’s Connections to National Events
The brief scheduled appearance of President elect Abraham Lincoln at the Peekskill Depot in 1861 happened due to his personal connections in the Village.
Local Attorney William Nelson served in the U.S. Congress during the years when Representative Lincoln served his one term between 1846 and 1848. Nelson had offered the invitation for Lincoln to speak in Peekskill in 1861.
Future U.S. Senator and Peekskill native Chauncey M. Depew was present at the 1861 event, and later met with President Lincoln in the White House in 1864 to inquire how New York State could assist in his re-election.
Nationally known anti-slavery abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher established a summer home on East Main Street in 1857. He later moved to Peekskill full time where he built an impressive mansion.
Former Peekskill resident Peter Cooper invited candidate Lincoln to successfully address a New York audience at Cooper Union in February 1860 as his first such public appearance in New York City. Lincoln went to visit Rev. Beecher immediately afterwards.
Lincoln’s Inaugural Train Journey
The railroad journey of the President–elect on New York Central trains from Springfield, Illinois to Washington D.C. in the winter of 1861 was considered a trip full of potential dangers.
Several Southern States had already withdrawn from the Union, and assassination attempts were a possibility. For these reasons, the train schedule was tightly controlled and the stops made for as short time as possible.
Abraham Lincoln stopped and made a brief statement at the Peekskill train depot at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, February 19, 1861. This dramatic event is fairly well documented.
Towards noon, quite a number came to the village from the country surrounding, and wended their way to the Depot.” Highland Democrat, Peekskill, Feb. 23rd, 1861. Section: Domestic Record, Headline: “Mr. Lincoln at Peekskill.”
Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States in November of 1860. He made a grand one week railway tour from his hometown in Springfield, Illinois to his inauguration in Washington D.C., which then took place in March. The trip was scheduled according to a precise timetable agreed upon along the route. The stops would be brief, and these stops would coincide with service requirements of fuel and water for the steam locomotive.
He stopped, and spoke at several big cities along the way. The inaugural train left Springfield on February 11th. It then stopped at Indianapolis, Ohio the same day. Lincoln arrived at Cincinnati on the 12th, and Columbus, Ohio the 13th. The train arrived at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on February 14th.
Lincoln proceeded to Buffalo, New York on the 16th. The New York State cities of Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica were visited on the 18th. Mr. Lincoln arrived at the Albany State Capitol on the 19th. That same day there were stops along the Hudson River line at Poughkeepsie, Fishkill and Peekskill. The train traveled to New York City the same day.
His stop in Peekskill on the 19th was the last one before New York City, which makes Lincoln's appearance here his only one in Westchester County.
The Historic Events As They Unfolded
Peekskill eyewitnesses of Lincoln's arrival later described what they had seen. Alzamore H. Clark was 13 years old in 1861. He related to the Evening Star newspaper many years afterwards: "A baggage truck was wheeled up on a parallel track, and Mr. Lincoln stepped on it from the platform of the rear car."
Chauncey M. Depew was present to greet Lincoln. He mentioned in a 1925 letter: "The depot was then at the foot of Center Street. A majority of the population of village showed up," for the event.
A contemporary news report in the Highland Democrat newspaper estimated the crowd at about 1,500 people. This is a remarkable number of citizens, considering that the 1860 national Census listed 3,560 people within Peekskill at that time.
The spectators and participants gathered at the depot around the Peekskill Military Academy Cadets, who with their muskets and bayonets surrounded the baggage car platform, forming what was described as a "hollow square," as the Honor guard.
As the Highland Democrat news account related: “The Academy Boys, under direction of Mr. Wells, the Principal, in military dress, with shouldered muskets and fixed bayonets, preceded by martial music also marched down to the same place, and…they were assigned the position of Guard of Honor; forming a hollow square, in center of which was the baggage tender car, and upon it the Committee and the President-elect was to stand while speaking.”
The special presidential train arrived right on time at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. “Exactly at the time set in the special table of the company, the train arrived, locomotive and cars beautifully decorated with flags, etc. There was a bustle, cheers and hurrahs and Abraham Lincoln stepped from the rear car, followed by half a dozen reporters and passed onto the platform prepared by the committee," stated the anonymous Peekskill news reporter.
Lincoln shook hands with several people gathered for the reception. "There was a great rush to shake Mr. Lincoln's hand.” [source Highland Democrat]
The train's conductor was Joseph Hudson of Peekskill. While Lincoln and others were speaking, the conductor supervised the drawing of water from two tanks for the steam boilers, one tank on each side of the tracks. Mr. Hudson also supervised stocking the locomotive with piles of yellow pine cordwood as fuel. (Mr. Hudson later became the village postmaster for 12 years).
The leaders of the local greeting committee presented themselves at the scene. These were Col. John H. Hyatt, commander of the Jefferson Guards, and Mr. Uriah Hill Jr., who became president of the Union Stove Works. (The Uriah Hill Elementary School is named in his memory.)
"The committee announced the programme of proceedings at the Depot. Toward noon, quite a number came in the village, and wended their way to the Depot." So there is no doubt that the ceremony took place at the old train station, or depot, where the derelict station still stands.
The contemporary Highland Democrat newspaper account finishes with this declaration: "Such is as nearly truthful picture as we can present." (signed) Fenelon Hasbrouck, editor.
Lincoln’s Words to Peekskill
The following is the text of Abraham Lincoln’s words he addressed to the people of Peekskill at the former railroad depot on February 19th, 1861:
“Ladies and gentlemen. I have but a moment to stand before you, to listen to, and return your kind greeting. I thank you for this reception, and for the pleasant manner in which it is tendered to me by our mutual friend. [Congressman Nelson]
“I will say in a single sentence, in regard to the difficulties which lie before me and our beloved country, that if I can only be as generously and unanimously sustained as the demonstrations I have witnessed indicate I shall be, I shall not fail.
“But without your sustaining hands, I am sure that neither I nor any other man can hope to surmount these difficulties.
“I trust that in the course I shall pursue, I shall be sustained not only by the party that elected me, but by the patriotic people of the whole country.”
Peekskill’s William Nelson Offered Greetings
Peekskill attorney William Nelson had served in the United States House of Representatives during the years 1847 to 1849. It was during this time that Nelson became acquainted with the Representative from Illinois, Mr. Lincoln. They became colleagues and friends. And were members of the same political sympathies, and shared anti-slavery viewpoints.
Nelson was identified by Mr. Lincoln in 1861 as “our mutual friend,” meaning a friend to the President-Elect and a friend to the People of Peekskill. The following is the text of William A. Nelson's welcoming address to Mr. Lincoln at Peekskill:
"I am requested in behalf of the Corporation and citizens of this village to express to you their gratification in meeting you at this time, and welcoming you to our village as the president-elect of this great village.
“This is not the time nor the occasion for making a formal address to you. But permit me to observe that we, in common with your fellow citizens generally, appreciate the difficulties, which probably will attend you in the discharge of the important duties about to devolve on you as the Chief Magistrate of this nation.
“We have, however, full confidence in the soundness of your head and the purity of your heart, that with the aid of that divine wisdom to which you have appealed, that with the aid of that Divine Wisdom to which you have appealed, you will be equal to every emergency which may arise in the critical condition of the nation.
“You have our hopes and prayers that your administration will prove as prosperous and happy to our beloved country, as honorable to yourself as the difficulties and dangers which now threaten you are great.
“Associated as we have been in the councils of the nation, I need not assure you of my own pleasure of thus meeting you again, and bearing to you this message from my neighbors and friends."
The Parting Scene
Mr. Lincoln’s appearance was described at the time of his visit. He appeared very tall with dark hair, neatly dressed and a beard. “He looked jaded, fatigued, as if just aroused from a nap, but when he commenced speaking, his whole countenance lighted up.”
At the end of Lincoln’s brief address, “Mr. Wood cried out, ‘Time’s up.’ The whistle shrieked. There was applause and cheers and waving of kerchiefs. Mr. Lincoln stepped on his car and the train moved. Mr. Lincoln remained on the car platform with uncovered heard and bowing to both sides until the train was out of sight.”
At this time the 21 cannon salute was fired. The Jefferson Guards was a Peekskill militia unit organized during the War of 1812. This unit showed up with their brass two cannons, which they positioned on South Street overlooking the depot.
The Highland Democrat newspaper reported on Feb. 23rd 1861: "The salute of 21 guns on the hill of South Street was fired in six and a half minutes. The reverberation from the charges did not produce any deafness, and no glass was broken by the concussion of the sound."
Amazing as it may seem, these artillery pieces, engraved with the dates 1852 and 1856, have been recently cleaned and remounted. They are located on both sides of the front entrance to the Peekskill School District Administration building on Elm Street. The Jefferson Guards had used Academy sheds to store their cannons for many years.
The Lincoln “Exedra”
The memorial stone alcove and plaque to Lincoln on South Street, created in 1925 and known as the "Lincoln Exedra," in fact overlooks the site of the 1861 depot, and the still standing structure is at least 100 years of age.
The old freight station, set back from Water Street at the bottom of Central Avenue, is in an exact sight line when the leaves are down and the brush is occasionally cleared from view.
The concept and reality of the stone memorial to Mr. Lincoln’s visit was the inspiration of Mr. John Smith Jr. of Peekskill. Smith was a veteran of the Civil War, where he apparently rated the rank of Captain. Smith was also a president of the Lincoln Society in 1917-1918, which had been formed in Peekskill in 1903.
Smith donated his family land for the Lincoln exedra monument.
Peekskill’s First Railroad Station
The Hudson River Railroad first arrived at Peekskill in September 1849. In 1850 and 1851, two tracks were available. The structure able to handle freight storage and passenger ticket area and waiting room was actually an original steamboat building moved across the tracks.
The railroad station was located at the foot of Center Street. “The building was second-hand, having served as the steamboat freight house at the Center Dock and been moved across the tracks. The structure was large, built of wood, and painted a conspicuous pink color. The freight and passenger accommodations were under the same roof." This information is according to an historical account by William MacKellar in 1941.
Commodore Vanderbilt, the railroad owner, "was willing to build a new station, or depot, as they called it, upon the same spot where the old one stood, "But he was forced to buy a site further south. The current railroad Metro North station was completed in 1875. "And there the railroad company built the station that we are still using," according to Mr. MacKellar.
These accounts still make it unclear when the brick station replaced the wooden structure on Water Street. But it is important to place the style and age of the former New York Central freight station, and former depot, in the context of the 1875 station, which is still active.
The Building As It Is Today
Although there are only passing references to a fire at the depot sometime after 1880 and before 1898, no clear evidence of the depot's destruction, or of a rebuilding, is mentioned in any of the anniversary events or printed news accounts.
Furthermore, if the station was rebuilt, it is unclear how it was different from the 1861 depot. Whatever these details may be, enough elements do exist to justify the claim to historical fame for the site and the structure.
Three estimates have been made of the current structure’s age. The Lakewood Appraisal Corporation in 1990 submitted this information to the Peekskill Planning Department: “The second building, which is situated to the rear of the site, and abuts the railroad tracks is a former depot building of 4,400 square feet, circa 1850 by the appraiser’s estimate. The building is of brick construction…Evidence of original architectural features is apparent in the wood beams, trolley roller sliding door and exterior brickwork…Evidence of a fire is visible as interior paint is blistered at the roof level. The building appears to be sound, and has a modern oil fired hot air furnace.”
There is a photo of the former Freight Station in a book by Franck Sanchis American Architecture, Westchester County, Colonial to Contemporary, North River Press, 1977. This book dates the structure at the 1880s. This date approximation was also given by architect Stephen Tilly in year 2000.
The correct and documented analysis of the building may be a worthwhile undertaking; regarding its age and structural elements.
Historical Advantages of a Depot Museum
Peekskill may well benefit by a restoration, renovation and re-creation of the old station, or depot, into a living year round museum. Such a facility could combine authentic artifacts, wall displays and an education section where films, slide programs and talks could be held.
This would be a distinct historical museum recalling to memory the president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, who persevered during a horrible civil war, who received support from other Peekskill affiliated people of that era such as Peter Cooper, Henry Ward Beecher and Chauncey M. Depew, who would also receive attention.
Peekskill’s part in the Underground Railroad system, its association with former slave and Civil War soldier William Henry Singleton, as well as its distinguished service by 690 veterans of that war could be commemorated as such a Museum.
As such, Peekskill then would be the only commemorative location along the entire thousand mile journey of president-elect Abraham Lincoln to Washington D.C. in 1861.
The Continuing Commemoration
The Continuing Commemoration
Curiously, no effort was made to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Lincoln visit in 1886. The 50th anniversary in 1911 was a different story. A lavish dinner was sponsored by the Lincoln Society of Peekskill at the Eagle Hotel on Main Street.
The 100th anniversary in 1961 was celebration with a theatrical re-enactment sponsored by the City and Peekskill Military Academy, who were on the scene during the 1861 event.
Actors portrayed Lincoln and William Nelson of Peekskill, who had served with the president elect the year 1847-49 and shared anti-slavery attitudes. Nelson was described by Lincoln in 1861 as "our mutual friend." It had been William Nelson's invitation to Lincoln which resulted in the Peekskill visit.
Lincoln at Peekskill spoke about 120 words concerning his awareness of the tremendous difficulties which lay before him. He concluded, "I trust that in the course I shall pursue, I shall be sustained, not only by the party that elected me, but by the patriotic people of the whole country."
The year 2001 marks the 140th Peekskill anniversary of the Lincoln visit. In recent times, a civic reminder is sponsored by the Peekskill Lincoln Society, in cooperation with the Field Library, with a procession from City Hall to the exedra, often accompanied by the Color Guard from West Point Military Academy and Blue Mountain Middle School students equipped with period outfits.
The Lincoln Society of Peekskill is celebrating its 100th anniversary in year 2004 with a gala ball and commemorative event scheduled for February 10, 2004.
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