This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in May 2014 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.
Abraham Lincoln slept, stood and walked here
By Jared Olar
The Union barely had time to celebrate Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, before the nation was horrified by the assassination of its Commander-in-Chief, President Abraham Lincoln, at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., on April 14 – a mere five days later.
One of Pekin’s pioneers was in Washington, D.C., during those days of sorrow: Seth Kinman, who formerly operated a hotel in downtown Pekin, claimed to have been an eye-witness of the president’s assassination, and contemporary newspaper accounts say Kinman took part in Lincoln’s funeral cortege.
As a result of his assassination, Lincoln came to be revered as a martyr for the cause of preserving the Union and for the abolitionist cause. The people of Illinois in particular have held his memory in the highest esteem ever since. It is in the state capital, Springfield, where he is entombed, and in towns and cities throughout the state Illinoisans are still proud to point to buildings and locations where Lincoln once lived, worked, or stayed. This is especially true of communities in central Illinois.
One of our county’s Lincoln sites unfortunately was destroyed by fire in May 2014 – the approximately 180-year-old Lilly Inn in eastern Tazewell County, one of the county’s oldest buildings, was a local link to President Abraham Lincoln, who stayed at the inn while riding the circuit as an attorney in central Illinois from the 1830s to the 1850s.
The Lilly Inn was, of course, far from the only site in our area with ties to Lincoln. For example, his work as a lawyer sometimes brought to him Mason County, where he is known to have stayed in the home of his friend Samuel C. Conwell on Washington Street in Havana. Conwell’s home, which he built in the early 1850s, is still standing.
In Tazewell County, Washington also boasts of its connection with Lincoln. At the old Washington Hotel, which stood where a BP parking lot is today, Lincoln made a stump speech during a stop on the way to Galesburg to debate Stephen A. Douglas. Some years ago, Washington placed five Bronze footprints at locations in Washington where Lincoln is known to have stopped in his travels.
Lincoln’s work brought him to Tazewell County two or three times a year, and he represented clients at the county’s courthouses in Tremont and Pekin. Naturally this work produced numerous Tazewell County legal documents bearing Lincoln’s signature or handwriting or name, and most of these precious mementos of Lincoln’s life, while remaining the possession of Tazewell County, are now in the keeping of the state of Illinois in Springfield.
One of Lincoln’s more important cases was Bailey vs. Cromwell (1841), in which Lincoln appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court in Springfield and won the freedom of Nance Legins-Costley (“Black Nance”) of Pekin, a slave of Pekin pioneer co-founder Nathan Cromwell. Lincoln successfully argued that Costley and her children had to be recognized as free under Illinois law since there was no legal documentation establishing that they had ever been the property of the principals involved in the case, or that Costley had ever agreed to a temporary contract of indentured servitude.
When he came to Pekin for court, Lincoln often stayed at the old Tazewell House hotel, which stood from 1849 to 1904 at the corner of Court and Front streets (Gene Miller Park today). After the Tazewell House hotel was demolished, its threshold was preserved at the Tazewell County Courthouse, and was inscribed with words commemorating the fact that “Hereon trod the great Abraham Lincoln – Stephen A. Douglas – John A. Logan – Robert G. Ingersoll – David Davis – Edward D. Baker and others.”
Tazewell House presumably was the Pekin hotel in the lobby of which, according to Tom Wheeler’s article, “The First Wired President,” published on a New York Times blog in May 2012, Lincoln first saw a telegraph key in 1857.
Lincoln’s legal career created another tangible link between Lincoln and Tazewell County – Lincoln sometimes would purchase his clients’ land and hold it for them in his name, later returning it when cases were concluded. That’s how Lincoln came to own several parcels of land in Tazewell, including the land at the intersection of Allentown and Springfield roads (where Morton has held the annual Punkin Chuckin event).
In 2008, retired teacher Dale Kuntz of Pekin, who served on the Tazewell County Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission preparing for the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in 1809, proposed that the city of Pekin create a historical “Lincoln Walk” in downtown Pekin to help visitors and residents learn more about Lincoln’s ties to the city.
Kuntz’s historical research had identified 22 sites along the proposed route that can be shown to have direct and indirect Lincoln connections, starting at the bank of the Illinois River where Lincoln had landed in 1832 when his oar broke while he returned from the Black Hawk War, then heading along Front Street south to Cynthiana, then east to Broadway, out to Sixth Street, then back west along Court Street to end at Gene Miller Park, the former site of the Tazewell House hotel.