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The Illinois state capital, Springfield, Illinois, spreads out from a neat, leafy downtown grid, 320 kilometers south of Chicago. Abraham Lincoln honed his legal and political skills here, and tourists flock to his old homes, haunts and final resting place. What they find is neither tacky nor pompous. The sites portray the life of the sixteenth president of the USA and, as well, the uncertainty and turmoil of a nation on the brink of civil war.
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Thirty-two kilometers northwest of downtown Springfield on Hwy-97, Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site marks where the future president first came to live in this area in 1831. In this backwoods clearing he clerked in a store, volunteered for the Black Hawk War, served as postmaster and failed in business before taking up legal studies and moving to Springfield, Illinois to pursue his political career. Today the authentically re-created village features simple homes, workshops, a store and a tavern. The visitor center hosts a worthwhile exhibit on pioneer lifestyles (March–Oct daily 0900–1700; Nov–Feb daily 0800–1600). On summer weekends the park presents Abraham!, a musical that dramatizes Lincoln's New Salem years.
Pick up tickets at the Lincoln Home Visitor Center, at Eighth and Jackson in downtown Springfield itself, for a narrated tour of the only house Lincoln ever owned, which he shared with his wife Mary from 1844 to 1861. Though tours are free (daily 0830–1700, though often later; LTG 1217 [23-0222]), you can expect to wait. Various displays and a brief film at the visitor center are good ways to pass time.
In the restored Greek Revival Old State Capitol, three blocks away at Sixth and Adams (March–Oct daily 0900–1700; Nov–Feb daily 0900–1600; free; LTG 1217 [85-7960]), Lincoln attended at least 240 Supreme Court hearings, and proclaimed in 1858, "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free." Objects, busts and papers relating to Lincoln and the Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, whom he debated in the 1858 US Senate election (Douglas won that election) and whom he defeated in the 1860 presidential election, can be found throughout the building. At the tastefully renovated Lincoln Depot on Tenth and Monroe (April–Aug daily 1000–1600; free), the newly elected president said goodbye to Springfield in February 1861 and boarded a train for his inauguration in Washington, DC (a virtual reality presentation illustrates the twelve-day journey, Matrix connections are available for those with datajacks). The next time he returned was in his funeral train. Lincoln's Tomb stands in Oak Ridge Cemetery on the north side of town. The vault, adorned with busts and statuettes, is no longer open to the public. The Illinois State National Guard have been stationed here since a shedim tried to make off with Mr. Lincoln's corpse.
At the current Illinois State Capitol, in majestic limestone at Second and Capitol, tour highlights include the chambers of the state Senate and House of Representatives, in striking red and blue, respectively (Mon–Fri 0800–1600; free; LTG 1217 [82-2099]). The Illinois State Museum, on Spring and Edwards, is crammed with natural history and Native American and contemporary art exhibits, along with the interactive "At Home in the Heartland" display tracing Illinois family life from 1700 to The Night of Rage in 2039 (Mon–Sat 0830–1700, Sun 1200–1700; free). The Dana–Thomas House, 301 E Lawrence Ave, completed in 1904, survives as the best-preserved and most completely furnished example of Frank Lloyd Wright's early Prairie house, with more than four hundred pieces of glasswork, original art and light fixtures (tours Wed–Sun 0900–1600; u$15). Just north of town, Tyler Shea proudly displays 120 years' worth of road signs, gas pumps, recharge jacks, and Route 66 memorabilia at Shea's Gas Station Museum, carrying on an old family business (Tues–Fri 0900–1600, Sat 0900–1200; free).