– Civil War Series –
Before becoming the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln spent most of his life in what was then considered the “Northwest Territory” of the United States: the relatively unpopulated states north of the Ohio River Valley. From his boyhood in Kentucky and Indiana to his rise to prominence as a lawyer and politician in the state of Illinois, it was here that Lincoln honed his persistent determination, skillful oratory, charming wit, and political genius. Today, especially in Illinois, local pride for Lincoln runs deep, and hundreds of historic sites tell the story of Lincoln’s remarkable transformation from poor “rail splitter” to the country’s most revered leader. History buffs and curious travelers can retrace the steps of Lincoln—from his birthplace in central Kentucky to a collection of landmarks and museums in Springfield, the Illinois capital—on a multi-day driving tour. A handful of hiking opportunities dot the route, especially at the sites in Kentucky and Indiana. It is difficult to choose from the dizzying array of Lincoln sites in a region with a mild obsession with the former president—but the following proposal strings together some of the most prominent and interesting sites to form a 4-day driving tour. Additional sites of interest—off the main route but Lincoln-related—are listed at the end.
Note: In this age of GPS, I have included addresses for each site (rough approximations—for example, the nearest house) in lieu of specific directions.
DAY 1: LINCOLN’S BOYHOOD (1809-1830)
Stop 1: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park (2995 Lincoln Farm Rd., Hodgenville, KY)
Billed as the “first Lincoln Memorial,” the beaux-arts Memorial Building at Sinking Springs Farm near Hodgenville, Kentucky is a grand commemoration to the 16th president. At the time of Lincoln’s birth in 1809, however, this rural homestead was modest at best: on the hardscrabble land Thomas and Nancy Lincoln built a petite, one-room log cabin. While the original log cabin is long gone, a replica—thought for many years to be the actual structure—remains, preserved inside the memorial by the National Park Service. Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park has a small visitor center with exhibits on Lincoln’s early life at Sinking Springs Farm, while a pair of hiking trails meander gently along the wooded hillsides. The namesake spring continues to drip into a dim cave near the memorial site.
Note: Abraham Lincoln National Historical Park is easily accessible from Louisville (1 hour) and Lexington, Kentucky (1 ½ hours) and a manageable drive from Nashville (2 hours) or Cincinnati (2.5 hours). I recommend staying in the Hodgenville area the night before starting the tour to get an early start the next morning. There is not a lot to do and see at Abraham Lincoln National Historical Park, but visitors should allot around 2-2.5 hours to explore the grounds, exhibits, and hiking trails.
Stop 2: Lincoln Museum (66 Lincoln Square, Hodgenville, KY)
It is less than a 10-minute drive from Lincoln’s birthplace to central Hodgenville, where the small Lincoln Museum includes an eclectic collection of wax figures and Lincoln memorabilia. Outside is a large statue of the town’s favorite son, who, despite being born at Sinking Springs, had no memory of his time spent living there.
Note: Allot around 1-1.5 hours for the museum. Admission costs $3 for adults.
Stop 3: Lincoln Boyhood Home at Knob Creek (7210 Bardstown Rd., Hodgenville, KY)
It’s another 10-minute drive from Hodgenville to Lincoln’s Boyhood Home at Knob Creek, where young Abe spent years 2-7 and developed his first lasting memories. Later in life, Lincoln recalled living in a splendid valley between wooded hills, as well as a near-death experience where he almost drowned in Knob Creek during a flash flood. The Lincolns moved here from Sinking Springs Farm due to a dispute over the land title, and it was the threat of eviction from Knob Creek that compelled the family to move again in 1816 across the Ohio River to Indiana. Today, the Knob Creek has no remaining artifacts (there is a recreated cabin and garden), but there is a steep, 1.5-mile hiking trail that leads to an underwhelming overlook. The site is administered by Abraham Lincoln National Historical Park.
Note: Skip the hiking trail, but spend at least 20-30 minutes wandering through part of the picturesque valley, imagining a young Abraham frolicking through the fields and forest. By now, it will be roughly lunch time on Day 1 of your journey.
Stop 4: Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial (3027 E. S St., Lincoln City, IN)
From Knob Creek, head west through Elizabethtown and across the Ohio River to southern Indiana, a roughly 2-hour drive to Lincoln’s third boyhood home and one of the highlights of the entire trip. Situated in a lovely, densely wooded area, Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial preserves the site where young Abe spent his teenage years. Later in life, Lincoln described his time living in the small pioneer community of Little Pigeon Creek as rather harrowing, where “the panther’s scream filled the night with fear, and bears preyed on the swine.” Southern Indiana, in the 1820s, remained largely wilderness, but it was here that young Abe developed his knack for storytelling, held his first paying jobs, and buried his mother and sister (who died of sudden illness).
Today, there is a large memorial to Lincoln at the site, and a Living Historical Farm offers a glimpse of pioneer life at the time that Lincoln grew up here. A terrific loop trail provides a circuit around the main grounds and includes a series of twelve stones, each taken from prominent sites in Lincoln’s life and career, such as Hodgenville, Springfield, Gettysburg, and Washington, DC.
Note: Allot the rest of the afternoon for this site, which includes a visitor center with a film on Lincoln’s boyhood. Explore the trails and Living Historical Farm, then settle for the night in the Lincoln City or Santa Claus area. Nearby Lincoln State Park, just south of the memorial, offers good camping options. See my post on August 11, 2019 for a trail description of a loop hike around Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.
DAY 2: FROM BOYHOOD TO YOUNG PROFESSIONAL (1816-1830)
Stop 5: Lincoln State Park (15476 County Rd. 300 E, Lincoln City, IN)
Although now principally a recreation area—a popular destination for swimmers and boaters—Lincoln State Park in southern Indiana also retains historic value as the old stomping grounds of young Abe and the Lincoln family. After a visit to Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, head into the park to walk the same routes frequented by young Lincoln, visit the site of the old Gentry store (where Abe worked as a teen), and view the cemetery where Abraham’s sister Sarah Lincoln Grigsby was buried after her tragic death in 1828. Pristine forest also invites visitors to squeeze in a hike or two before moving onward.
Note: Spend at least 1-2 hours exploring the park before heading onward toward Illinois.
Stop 6: Lincoln Trail State Memorial (MFM7+7F Westport, Allison Township, IL)
It’s a relatively long trek from Lincoln City, Indiana to the Springfield area of Illinois, but one can break up the trip by heading northwest to the Lincoln Trail State Memorial, just across the Wabash River from Vincennes, Indiana. The site itself is just a stone monument, denoting the path by which Abraham, now 21, entered Illinois for the first time. After more than a decade in Indiana, the Lincoln family again set out further west in search of a new home.
Note: The memorial itself requires no more than 5 minutes, but curious visitors should also check out the charming town of Vincennes, Indiana, which is home to the Harrison Mansion and George Rogers Clark National Historical Park.
Stop 7: Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site (402 S. Lincoln Hwy., Lerna, IL)
From here the driving tour briefly deviates from chronological order. It’s roughly 1 ½ hours from the Indiana border to Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site in Lerna, Illinois, where Abraham’s father Thomas and step-mother Sarah Bush Lincoln settled in the 1840s while Lincoln pursued his law and political career in Springfield. Abraham likely had a strained relationship with his father and is thought to have expressed little remorse when Thomas Lincoln died in 1861. He had a much fonder relationship with Sarah Bush, however, who embraced raising Abraham after his mother’s death while living in Indiana. Thomas Lincoln’s original log cabin is no more—it was destroyed after being displayed at the 1893 World Expo in Chicago. However, like the boyhood home in Indiana, there is a living historical farm at the site, as well as a handful of trails and a brief park film.
Note: Allot around one hour for this site before moving on. Be sure to leave before 3 in the afternoon to head to the Lincoln Douglas Debate Museum, which closes at 4pm.
Stop 8: Lincoln Douglas Debate Museum (126 E St., Charleston, IL)
A small museum in Charleston, Illinois is dedicated to a key turning point in Lincoln’s political career: a series of public debates that pitted an upstart Lincoln against Senator Stephen Douglas ahead of the 1858 election for one of Illinois’ two Senate seats. While Lincoln went on to lose the election, the highly-publicized debates raised his national profile and sharpened his anti-slavery stane that he would carry into the White House two years later. Lincoln had arguably a mediocre performance at the debate in Charleston on September 18, but the museum (with limited hours) tells the story of all seven electric political showdowns with Douglas in 1858 that helped shaped Lincoln’s political career.
Note: Allot around an hour for this site. By now, it should be approaching evening on your second day.
Stop 9: Lincoln Trail Homestead State Park & Memorial (RV3W+M7 Harristown, Harristown Township, IL)
The last stop for the day is Lincoln Trail Homestead State Park & Memorial, a small patch of land near present-day Decatur, Illinois. It was here that the Lincolns built their first home in Illinois, a modest 16×16-foot cabin above the banks of the Sangamon River. The Lincolns did not last long here, however: the brutal “Winter of Deep Snow” in 1830-31 brought unusually frigid temperatures and howling winds that convinced the Lincoln family to abandon the site after less than a year. Meanwhile, Abraham turned 21 and was determined to strike out on his own: he purchased a canoe and set off down the Sangamon River toward New Salem, where he would live for much of his twenties. Today, the site near Decatur features a few modest landmarks and heavily wooded nature trails, with some limited access to the Sangamon River.
Note: Allot around 30 minutes to an hour to walk around this site. From here, make your way west to Springfield and New Salem, which will be covered in the final two days of the 4-day driving tour.
DAY 3: LINCOLN IN SPRINGFIELD I (1830-1861)
Stop 10: Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site (15588 History Ln., Petersburg, IL)
After tracing Lincoln’s journey to Illinois for the past two days, spend the next two days in the Springfield area, the heart of the Land of Lincoln and the locus of Lincoln’s political and law career for much of his professional life. After moving away from his parents’ home in 1831, Lincoln settled for six years in New Salem, northwest of Springfield. Here Lincoln held several jobs, including store clerk, rail splitter, postmaster, and surveyor, and fostered friendships that he would maintain throughout his life. It was from here that he also launched his political career, running twice for the state legislature—losing his first attempt but succeeding in 1834. Today, Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site features a reconstruction of the pioneer community at New Salem, as well as hiking trails along the Sangamon River.
Note: Plan to spend at least a couple hours at New Salem before heading back into Springfield for the rest of the day.
Stop 11: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library (212 N. 6th St., Springfield, IL)
The remainder of the tour covers a flurry of sites in Springfield, which became the capital of Illinois in 1839. Lincoln himself, who moved to Springfield in 1836, played a key role in moving the state capital here, and he spent much of the next decade serving as a lawyer in the city. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum offer a good introduction to Lincoln’s presidency and life in Springfield. While exhibits at the library itself are limited, it is worth ducking in for a half-hour to sneak a peek at the massive collection of Illinois historical records at the site, including 12 million books, documents, and other artifacts.
Note: Spend around 30 minutes at this site, which has rotating exhibits, before making your way to the museum across the street.
Stop 12: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum (212 N. 6th St., Springfield, IL)
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, just across the street from the presidential library, has an impressive set of exhibits, particularly in covering Lincoln’s time in the White House. While less comprehensive than some other presidential library museums, life-size reproductions of key events—such as the Lincoln Douglas debates, cabinet meetings, and the president’s murder—immerse visitors in the life of the 16th president. Reproductions of Lincoln’s log cabin and funeral site are particularly impressive, while the unique “Ghosts of the Library” uses Holavision technology to mix the performance of a live actor with a series of holograms.
Note: Allot the rest of the day to explore the museum, then spend the night in Springfield.
DAY 4: LINCOLN IN SPRINGFIELD (1836-1861)
Stop 13: Lincoln Home National Historic Site (413 S 8th St., Springfield, IL)
Start off the final day of the tour with a visit to Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the only National Park Service unit in Springfield. The site, in addition to offering brief tours of Lincoln’s Springfield home, also includes recreations of Lincoln’s neighborhood when he lived in the Illinois capital from the 1830s to 1860s. Being arguably the city’s most prominent lawyer, Lincoln—with his wife Mary Todd, and his children—lived in a well-to-do home and turned many of his neighbors into key political supporters, who would go on to support his bids for senate and the presidency.
Note: Allot at least 2.5-3 hours to explore the visitor center, take the half-hour tour of the Lincoln home, and jaunt around Lincoln’s neighborhood. A couple of the surrounding houses have further exhibits on Lincoln and Springfield during the mid-19th century. There is parking available at the site for $2 per hour.
Stop 14: Lincoln Law Office/Springfield Visitors Center (1 S. Old Capitol Plaza, Springfield, IL)
The Springfield Visitors Center, situated on the first floor of the building that housed Lincoln’s Springfield law practice, is the epicenter for tourism in the city. In addition to viewing Lincoln’s law office (closed for reconstruction at the time of my visit in July 2019), visitors in the summer can get information here on “History Comes Alive,” a fantastic set of events by local reenactors with a deep knowledge of Lincoln and town history.
Note: Depending on whether there is programming at the visitors’ center, plan to spend either 20 minutes viewing the law office and gaining information—or up to 2 hours when the reenactors are on site. Most of the programming is held across the street at the Old State Capitol, the next site on the tour.
Stop 15: Old State Capitol (S 6th St. & E. Adams St., Springfield, IL)
For most of the time that Lincoln lived in Springfield, the state capitol building was situated here at 6th and Adams Streets in downtown Springfield. Although the capitol moved to a larger facility in the 1870s, the Greek revival structure here remains impressive today, and each room is affiliated with Lincoln in some way: here Lincoln borrowed books from the state library, served several terms in the state house of representatives, tried cases before the Illinois Supreme Court, and delivered his famed “House Divided” speech. In summer, several “History Comes Alive” events are held here in the Old State Capitol, which, in more recent history, also served as the location where President Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign in 2007.
Note: If there are events being held at the state capitol, plan to spend at least 1-2 hours here. If not, a brief, 30-minute walk-through will do, or one of the regularly-offered walking tours of the building.
Stop 16: Lincoln Depot (930 E. Monroe St., Springfield, IL)
Fast-forwarding in time, Lincoln’s final experience in Springfield came here at the Lincoln Depot on February 11, 1861, when he boarded a slow train bound for Washington, DC to begin his first term as president. To the throngs of visitors who came to see him off, he said farewell: “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…I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.” Lincoln would never return again, except in death, when his body was put to rest back in his hometown.
Note: Allot around 30 minutes for this site, which has a lengthy movie that plays on a loop.
Stop 17: Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site (1500 Monument Ave., Springfield, IL)
The final stop on the 4-day driving tour is the Lincoln Tomb, situated in Oak Ridge Cemetery, the second-most-visited cemetery in the country. (Note: See here for the first, where Lincoln’s eldest son happens to be buried.) Under an impressive obelisk lie the graves of Abraham and his wife Mary Todd, as well as his three youngest sons (Eddie, Willie, and Tad), all three of whom did not survive to adulthood. Circling around the crypt, miniature versions of famous Lincoln statues trace his life from boy and young lawyer to president. After four days of the driving tour, starting with Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky, Lincoln’s final burial place serves as a fitting end to the story.
Of course, this was just a small selection of the hundreds of Lincoln-related sites in the region, and visitors can pick and choose from a broader set to lengthen the journey. Some of the more prominent of these “second-tier” sites are listed below (and included on the above map):
- Kentucky: Farmington Historic Plantation (Louisville); Hardin County History Museum (Elizabethtown); Judge Joseph Holt House (Hardinsburg); Lincoln Homestead State Park (Springfield); Lincoln Legacy Museum (Springfield); Mary Todd Lincoln House (Lexington)
- Illinois: Beardstown Lincoln Museum (Beardstown); Bryant Cottage (Bement, IL); David Davis Museum (Bloomington); DeSoto House (Galena); Edwards Place Historic Home (Springfield); First Presbyterian Church (Springfield); Lincoln Heritage Museum (Lincoln); Lincoln Trail State Park (Marshall); Long Nine Museum (Athens); Macon County History Museum (Decatur); McLean County Museum of History (Bloomington); Metamora Courthouse (Metamora); Mount Pulaski Courthouse (Mt. Pulaski); Postville Courthouse (Lincoln); Quincy History Museum (Quincy); Stillman’s Run Memorial (Stillman’s Valley); Vachel Lindsay Home (Springfield); Vandalia State House (Vandalia); Vermilion County Museum (Danville); William Watson Hotel (Pittsfield)