From the world's first drive-up diner to the old Capitol building where Abraham Lincoln served the people, the attractions of Springfield and central Illinois will delight families.
Springfield, the capital of Illinois, is commonly referred to as the “Land of Lincoln,” due to its ties to the life of one of our most favorite presidents. However, Abraham Lincoln was not born in Springfield. He arrived in nearby New Salem as a 21-year-old, and moved to Springfield in 1837, where he became a lawyer and politician, eventually departing when he was elected president in 1860. As much as he left his mark on this city, he also had such a profound connection to Springfield that before he boarded the train that brought him to Washington, DC, he said:
“My friends – No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born and one is buried…To His care I am commending you.”
Lincoln’s Time in Illinois
With more than a million annual visitors to Springfield to see the variety of Abraham Lincoln sites, you may start your exploration in Lincoln’s New Salem, located 20 miles northwest of Springfield. This is the town that welcomed the young Abraham Lincoln in 1831 from his boyhood in Indiana, and sent him off to Springfield as an attorney just six years later. It was in New Salem that Lincoln clerked in a store, enlisted in the Black Hawk War, served as postmaster and deputy surveyor, failed in business, and, in 1834, was elected to the Illinois legislature. Today this recreated village has 23 authentically reproduced buildings, including Rutledge Tavern, Miller’s Blacksmith Shop, the village school, and log homes.
In the city of Springfield, the Lincoln Home (217/492-4241) which is the only home Abraham Lincoln ever owned, is located in the four-block historic neighborhood. In the spring of 1844, Mr. Lincoln and his wife purchased it for $1,200 cash and the 1½ story house was enlarged in 1856 to accommodate their growing family. Three of Lincoln’s four sons were born and one died in this house. The home today contains furnishing appropriate to the period when occupied by the Lincolns, including some pieces original to the Lincoln family.
The Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices are the only remaining offices where Abraham Lincoln practiced law from 1843 until 1852, and this building also housed the only Federal Court in Illinois between 1840 and 1855. Today visitors can see a restoration of these facilities and can view a multi-media presentation describing some of cases tried by Abraham Lincoln here.
The Old State Capitol, built in 1837, is considered a perfect example of Greek revival architecture, as well as one of the most historic buildings west of the Allegheny Mountains. The rooms are furnished in the period of 1840 to 1860, with many objects relating to famous people who frequented the building, such as Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant. It was here on June 6, 1858, that Lincoln delivered his famous “House Divided Speech.” After President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, his body lay in state in the House of Representatives.
Abraham Lincoln bade farewell to Springfield and boarded a train to Washington, DC from the historic Lincoln Depot on February 11, 1861. His famous parting words, quoted above, are said to match the eloquence of the Gettysburg Address. The depot offers re-created waiting rooms, historic photographs and a lively slide show depicting Mr. Lincoln’s 12-day train journey to his inauguration. Spiced with political cartoons and editorial jabs at the newly elected president, it realistically portrays the turmoil facing the new leader of a country on the brink of civil war.
Abraham Lincoln never returned to Springfield until after his assassination. He was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery on May 4, 1865. The Lincoln Tomb was later built with public contributions at a cost of $18,000 and dedicated in 1874. Mrs. Lincoln and three of their four sons are also buried in the tomb, which, with its dressed granite exterior rising 116 feet, is located in a 320-acre historic cemetery. Every Tuesday evening from June through August, the 114th Reactivated Civil War Infantry Unit performs a flag retreat ceremony, presenting the flag to an audience member.
Lincoln Presidential Library
Allow a day to visit the jewel among Springfield’s fascinating sites, the five-year-old Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum (800/610-2094). Since its dedication on April 19, 2005 it has welcomed more than 2.3 million visitors. The $115 million multimedia facility houses the world’s largest collection of Lincoln documents and artifacts including handwritten copies of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address.
In recent years, it has expanded its educational mission and designs wonderful traveling exhibits about the former president and his work.
The library’s Central Plaza is interspersed with realistically designed “models” of the Lincoln family and others in his life, such as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and General Ulysses S. Grant. John Wilkes Booth stands to the side as if intently watching Lincoln’s back. Recreations of many of the significant places and events in Lincoln’s life include his Indiana boyhood cabin, a replica of Lincoln’s theater box at the Ford Theater in Washington DC, and a Lincoln-Douglas debate scene.
There is so much more to see that you’ll have to pace yourselves; take breaks at the cafe and schedule the museum’s films at intervals to get everyone off their feet.
The electronic “Civil War in Four Minutes” map has a casualty counter and battle lines that continuously move to illustrate the changing progress of the war.
Two other theme-park-like theaters help visitors, especially children, relate to historical events. One features the chaotic times and events of the mid-1800s brought to life by cannon reverberations, rumbling seats, surround sound and changing wall screens depicting Civil War battlegrounds. “Ghosts of the Library” demonstrates the pleasure of reading and conducting library research through a blend of live action and holographic 3D images.
Elsewhere in the museum is Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic, a children’s space that includes period toys and activities to encourage young imaginations.
Springfield has the World’s First Drive-Up Diner & More
Located midway between Chicago and St. Louis, Springfield is in the heart of Illinois’ historic U.S. Route 66. Here you can explore several sites and attractions related to the “Mother Road.” Don’t miss Bill Shea’s Route 66 Gas Station Museum where you can meet Bill, who has spent over 50 years working and living along Route 66. Here, you can sit inside an old Chevy and check out restored gas pumps, old cash registers and other memorabilia.
When you get hungry, you’ll find such specialties as the Cozy Dog (hotdog on a stick) and the Horseshoe (a sandwich made with French fries) at spots along Route 66 – plan to stop at the Maid-Rite, the world’s first drive-up window restaurant whose menu is the same as when it opened in 1924.
Architecture buffs will enjoy another famous site in Springfield, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas House, one of the best preserved and most complete of Wright’s early “Prairie” houses. It was constructed in 1902-1904 for Springfield socialite and female activist Susan Lawrence Dana and contains more than 100 pieces of original Wright-designed furniture, as well as 250 examples of art glass doors and windows, and approximately 200 original art-glass light fixtures. The dining room, which can seat 40, and the studio/gallery/ballroom are two of the most-photographed spaces in the history of American architecture.
For family fun, head to Knight’s Action Park & Caribbean Water Adventure, a great place with enough land & water activities to fill up an entire day. For other fun family activities around Springfield and throughout Illinois, check out the new Illinois Tourism site for kids.
From mid June to mid August, the historic downtown area of Springfield hosts free events, performances and tours by costumed interpreters to help families and children appreciate just how rich the local history is.
New Salem, Lincoln’s first Illinois home, is just 20 miles away from Springfield and also has many special-for-families activities. Seasonal festivals in the village of New Salem celebrate pioneer life mid-1800’s style, and the town’s Theatre in the Park puts on plays with historical themes all summer.
Throughout central Illinois there are many other sites for those interested in an Abraham Lincoln pilgrimage. Visit Looking for Lincoln Heritage Project for a variety of tours of varying lengths with Springfield as the hub.
Springfield is a 3-hour drive south of Chicago. Whether you’re on a road trip or able to spend a few days, Springfield offers more than three dozen hotels and motels ranging from limited-service economy to full-service luxury, including all of the major chains.
Check out Visit Springfield Illinois for a complete listing of hotel options by clicking on “Visitor Information,” then “Accommodations;” also check out the section of “specials.” The site also hosts a Spanish and German language version for foreign visitors who are interested in learning more about America’s hero. Also see, Top Hotels in Springfield.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.