Abraham Lincoln rides to Washington, 150 years later

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; B01

"Abraham Lincoln" stepped from the gray Toyota minivan outside the Baltimore train station Wednesday, grabbed his carpetbag and leather valise and put on his stovepipe hat.

He wore a gray scarf and a watch fob and had a pair of gloves stuffed into his overcoat pocket, but he looked rumpled and road-weary. A woman with a cup of coffee brushed past him toward a cab, seeming not to notice him.

"Good morning," he said to bystanders, smiling and doffing his hat. "So good to see you." His trip from Springfield, Ill., had been uneventful, he reported: "It has not been marred by any unfortunate incidents, even here in Baltimore."

So began the federal government's commemoration of the last leg of Lincoln's journey to Washington 150 years ago Wednesday, and the National Park Service's official Civil War sesquicentennial observance.

Baltimore was his next-to-last stop. He had been on the road for 13 days, having stopped in 17 cities and addressed thousands of people across almost 2,000 miles, aides said.

But soon he would be in Washington, where his inauguration was scheduled for March 4 - 1861.

Wednesday's event was marked by historical similarities - Lincoln was portrayed by Springfield actor Fritz Klein, 62, who, like Lincoln, stands 6 feet 4 inches tall and sports real whiskers.

Klein even used folksy, Lincoln-like analogies - the tension between the nation's federal and local power is like a taut clothesline strung between poles: "You don't ever want to chop one down, or the whole thing collapses," he said.

But there were incongruities: the minivan, the graffiti on the rail bridge underpasses. Also, the midmorning train trip came under bright blue skies; the secret, high-security 1861 journey happened in the pre-dawn darkness.

The train was met at Union Station by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, in his trademark black cowboy hat, and a mob of reporters. The faux Lincoln was accompanied by National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis.

"This is the first, most significant beginning of the Civil War sesquicentennial," Jarvis said in Baltimore before the trip started. "What we're using this opportunity for . . . is to really . . . deepen the discussion about the cause of the Civil War."

Salazar noted that the National Park Service manages Civil War and civil rights sites across the nation. "We have Gettysburg," he said. "We also have Selma to Montgomery."

"What we're trying to do is to elevate the dialogue around the issue of slavery as cause," he said. "And the fact that the struggle for civil rights continues even to today."

"Lincoln" arrived at Baltimore's Penn Station at 10:05 a.m., along with Park Service officials and a group of youngsters from Baltimore's Digital Harbor High School, where he had given a presentation.

"I hope they don't ask me for a picture ID," Klein joked as he waited for the train.

"It's a huge privilege and responsibility," he said of portraying Lincoln. "To not be silly about it, to really do it seriously but to have fun, too. To be accurate, and to be relevant. It's sometimes a hard combination."

Klein said he left Springfield on Feb. 11, just as Lincoln did, and began the journey east.

"It's an exhilarating experience," he said. "The reception has been extraordinary, way beyond what we expected. In some of the venues they turned away as many as they were able to take in."

"In a sort of a misguided sense, people long for the old days," he said. "Not realizing that nothing really changes. Human nature is pretty much the same. . . . They don't need Lincoln. All they need to do is look at the things Lincoln did and said and practice" them.

Train No. 185 - with special arrangements courtesy of Amtrak - left Baltimore at 10:45 a.m. Klein, Jarvis and other Park Service experts gathered in the last car and fielded questions from the students.

The train arrived at Union Station at 11:25 a.m. Also there were Karen Barton of Bergenfield, N.J., her son Brendan, 10, his friend A.J. DeBenedictis, 13, and Barton's husband, Michael.

They had been elsewhere on the train, heard Lincoln was aboard and were hoping for a glimpse.

Karen Barton gasped when he emerged from Car 82518. "There he is, boys," she said.

The boys maneuvered for a look and, after the excitement had died down, posed with the chief executive while Barton took photos.

Afterward, she thanked Klein, saying Brendan's teachers would be delighted.

Brendan said being photographed with Abraham Lincoln was "awesome."

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