On Nov. 18, 1863, another train from Washington had chuffed around the bend and stopped at the rail junction here en route to Gettysburg, 30 miles west.
Along with her father, it carried his boss, President Abraham Lincoln, who had in his pocket a short, unfinished speech.
“Four score and seven years ago,” it began, “our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal.’ ”
Lincoln was satisfied with that part and the rest of the first page he had written out on Executive Mansion stationery back in Washington.
It was the second page that he was about to scrap, and rewrite so powerfully, after he arrived in Gettysburg.
In addition to Helen Nicolay’s father, who was Lincoln’s confidant and chief secretary, others on the train included Secretary of State William H. Seward; Lincoln’s free black valet, William H. Johnson, who would soon be dead of smallpox; and the Rev. Thomas A. Stockton, a congressional chaplain who would give a moving, and now forgotten, talk of his own in Gettysburg.
Nicolay’s boyish assistant, John Hay, who called Lincoln “the Tycoon,” was also aboard, as were politicians, foreign dignitaries and 27 members of the Marine Band, including John Philip Sousa’s father, Antonio.
All those on the train that paused here to switch rail lines were bound for roles, large and small, in one of the Civil War’s great dramas — the delivery by Lincoln the next day of the Gettysburg Address.
The small southern Pennsylvania town where they were headed had been ravaged that July in the biggest and bloodiest battle of the Civil War.
Lincoln had been invited to speak at the dedication of the cemetery set aside for the thousands of dead Union soldiers, but he wasn’t the keynote speaker.
The main Gettysburg address had been assigned to the most celebrated orator of the day, Edward Everett, a 69-year-old former U.S. senator and secretary of state.
The original date of the ceremony, Oct.23, had been pushed back four weeks to give him time to prepare. “The occasion is one of great importance,” Everett wrote in response to his invitation, “not to be dismissed with a few sentimental or patriotic commonplaces.”
He had thus prepared a two-hour speech — which included a 177-word sentence — and had a private tent with a portable commode stationed by the speakers’ platform in case he needed a bathroom break.
He was waiting with the throng of VIPs, reporters and well wishers at the Gettysburg train station for Lincoln to arrive.
Of course it would be Lincoln’s speech that would define the nation the next day and touch all who were associated with it — from Nicolay, who long had custody of the speech; to Everett, who admitted that his oration was utterly eclipsed by Lincoln’s; to a man on the speakers’ platform who said he held Lincoln’s hat.