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Time Machine: Iowa’s links to Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is Sunday so it’s a good time to review the 16th president’s ties to Iowa.
After serving as a volunteer captain during the Black Hawk War in 1832, Abraham Lincoln was awarded two Iowa land grants, one in Crawford County in west-central Iowa and the other in Tama County in east-central Iowa.
Lincoln didn’t visit the properties then, but he did enter certificates of ownership for both tracts at Springfield, Ill., when he was running for president in 1860.
In 1858, Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois, challenging the incumbent, Stephen Douglas. During the campaign, Lincoln visited Burlington, just across the Mississippi River from Illinois, to speak at Grimes Hall on Oct. 9.
The event was recorded in the Monday, Oct. 11, Burlington Hawk Eye:
“Saturday evening Grimes’ Hall was filled to its full capacity by citizens of Burlington and vicinity for the purpose of listening to a speech from Mr. Lincoln, the man who all Republicans desire and a great many are very certain will succeed Judge (Stephen) Douglas as senator from the state of Illinois.
“So great is the sympathy felt here in the spirited canvass in Illinois, and so high is the opinion entertained of the ability of Mr. Lincoln as a speaker, that a very short notice brought together from 1,200 to 1,500 ladies and gentlemen.
“High, however, was the public expectation, and much as was anticipated, he, in his address of two hours, fully came up to the standard that had been erected. It was a logical discourse, replete with sound argument, clear, concise and vigorous, earnest, impassioned and eloquent.
“Those who heard recognized in him a man fully able to cope with the Little Giant (Stephen Douglas) anywhere, and altogether worthy to succeed him.”
The newspaper apologized for not being able to report Lincoln’s speech in full because it was “not in our power.”
But the paper did report Lincoln appeared “fresh and vigorous” during his Saturday evening speech.
“There was nothing in his voice, manner or appearance to show the arduous labors of the last two months – nothing to show that the immense labors of the canvass had worn upon him in the least.
“In this respect he has altogether the advantage of Douglas, whose voice is cracked and husky, temper soured and general appearance denoting exhaustion.”
Lincoln stayed all night at the Barret House in Burlington before heading to Monmouth, Ill.
When he checked into the hotel before his speech, he handed the desk clerk a paper-wrapped package, his only luggage.
“Please take good care of that,” he said. “It is my boiled shirt. I will need that this evening.”
An “immense crowd” filled the Barret House rotunda to shake hands with Lincoln.
A man named Henry Ewinger, who closely resembled Lincoln, approached Lincoln and said, “Mr. Lincoln, I know that you are a greater man than I am, but let me see who is taller.”
“The great man from Illinois smiled, straightened up and said, ‘six feet four.’ And Mr. Ewinger replied, ‘six feet four here.’ And when they stood back to back there was not a hair’s breadth between their heights,” the Burlington newspaper reported.
Lincoln lost that Senate election to Douglas, but two years later was elected to the White House. Burlington’s Grimes Hall was razed in 1962.
Council Bluffs stop
In August 1859, Lincoln stopped in Council Bluffs to check on some town lots he owned.
Major Gen. Grenville M. Dodge talked about that visit in a story for the special section The Gazette produced in February 1909, the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s 100th birthday.
Dodge said Lincoln bought the properties in the 1850s after successfully representing the Rock Island Railroad when the city of St. Louis sued to stop construction of a railway bridge across the Mississippi River at Davenport. The city argued the bridge would obstruct river navigation. St. Louis lost that lawsuit.
Lincoln traveled to Council Bluffs in 1859 — by steamboat up the Missouri River — “for the purpose of seeing the country and looking after his real estate interests,” Dodge said.
Dodge said Lincoln quizzed him about the region’s climate and topography and resources of the country beyond the Missouri River.
“During Lincoln’s visit,” Grenville said, “some of the citizens of Council Bluffs took him to a high bluff known as Cemetery Hill, just north of the town. From this point could be had a view of the country. … He was greatly impressed with the outlook, and the bluff from that time has been known as Lincoln’s Hill.”
Lincoln was elected present Nov. 6, 1860, and inaugurated March 4, 1861. Perhaps as a result of his visit to that bluff, he signed into law the Pacific Railway Act in July 1862, the bill that established a transcontinental railroad.
James A. Harlan, a close friend of Lincoln’s and a member of his Cabinet, was the proprietor of the Harlan House in Mount Pleasant.
In later years, Harlan’s daughter, Mary, married Lincoln’s son, Robert. The couple spent summers in Mount Pleasant.
Iowans recall Lincoln
In The Gazette’s special section on Lincoln in 1909, Eastern Iowans who’d met Lincoln, long considered the greatest president in the nation’s history, recalled that experience.
- Mrs. W.L. (Rose Lee) Pauley of Cedar Rapids lost her father in the Civil War. Her mother rented out their New York farm and went to work as a nurse in a facility near Washington, which Lincoln visited. “I have sat on his (Lincoln’s) lap many times and remember his manner and his voice as well as I remember my mother’s,” she told The Gazette.
- Henry Rickel, a lawyer and president of the Cedar Rapids Candy Co., grew up in Springfield, Ill., and said his father and Lincoln were friends and often regaled each other with stories.
- Henry Geisking of Blairstown said he had dined at the White House with Lincoln. A native of Prussia, he came to the United States as an indentured servant to a distant cousin of Lincoln’s in Pennsylvania. He met Lincoln when the president-elect stopped by his cousin’s house on the way to his inauguration in 1861.
- Mrs. L.J. Wood of Cedar Rapids had lived in Decatur, Ill., as a child and recalled Lincoln, who lived about 10 miles away, visiting her father, one of his cousins. When she was little, “Cousin Abe,” she said, would “take me on his shoulder and carry me out in the shade of a tree and would sit and study for hours, and I would sit and watch him. … He used to call me ‘angel’ and ‘darling,’ probably because I was sickly.“