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KELLY'S KORNER: Recalling Lincoln’s 1861 visit to Utica

Joe Kelly
Sentinel columnist
Posted 1/29/23

So seldom do I have the correct answers to anything, I am quick to speak up when I do. 

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KELLY'S KORNER: Recalling Lincoln’s 1861 visit to Utica


So seldom do I have the correct answers to anything, I am quick to speak up when I do. 

“Washington,” I said when asked to name the best president of the United States. “There wouldn’t have been a United States had it not been for George Washington.”

“Who comes in second place?”

Both questions were asked by the moderator of our history round table. Once again, I answered fast and first.

“Abraham Lincoln. Without him the Union would have died.” 

I don’t have any stories about George Washington being in Oneida County, but I do have one about Lincoln. I’ve told the story before. It’s a good story. Not often do presidents pass through the Mohawk Valley. Actually, Abraham Lincoln was president-elect at the time. 

It was snowing hard when Lincoln’s special train pulled into Utica at 11:17 a.m. on Feb. 18, 1861. The three-car train, painted bright yellow, was pulled by a wood burning locomotive. The locomotive’s big kerosene headlight was covered with a lithograph of Lincoln.

Lincoln was on a 2,000-mile, whistle-stop tour through Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York. Utica was one of the stops, as were train stations through the Mohawk Valley. It was a chance for people to see the man they had elected president. The train trip began in Springfield, Illinois. and would end in Washington, D.C., where Lincoln would be inaugurated.

As soon as Lincoln’s train squeaked to a stop, a railway flatcar, decorated with flags, was pushed into place behind it. Atop the car, which was going to be used as a speaking platform, was the official welcoming committee.

Lincoln walked out the train’s rear door and onto the flatcar. The crowd roared. Judge Ward Hunt, who would go on to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice, appealed for quiet.

“Mr. President,” he said, “on behalf of the citizens of Utica, I welcome your arrival among us, Democrats and Republicans, united in wishes for your happiness, in reliance upon the wisdom of your administration and in the hope that our country will be speedily relieved from the perils that encompass it.”

Utica Mayor DeWitt Grove stepped forward and introduced Lincoln. The crowd roared again. Lincoln smiled. The trip had been tiring, but the crowds had been enthusiastic.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the man destined for greatness. The crowd hushed. “I have no speech to make to you. I should have no sufficient time to make one if I had. I have appeared here simply to thank you heartily for the noble reception, to see you and to allow you to see me. I am not sure, but, at least as regards to the ladies, I have the best of the bargain. In conclusion, I have only to say farewell.”

“Mr. Lincoln,” yelled men standing on the other side of the tracks, “over here, Mr. Lincoln.”

Lincoln turned and walked to the other side of the flatcar. “Gentlemen, I come around to say to you what I did to those on the other side, which was but a few words and I can’t say here what I did on the other side, as there are no ladies on this side. I said that there were so many ladies present that I had the best part of the sight, but bear in mind I don’t make any such admissions now.”

Lincoln smiled. The men laughed.

Lincoln was introduced to local dignitaries, shook their hands, and stepped to the rear platform of his train. The train’s whistle blew. The crowd waved. Lincoln, all 6 feet, 4 inches of him, stood with arms at his side and bowed, as the train slowly gathered speed and headed west. 

One final note. I’m glad no one asked me the name of the third best president. There are several contenders.


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