Tuesday, February 10, 2009

 

Happy Birthday, Lincoln!

Just published this in the February edition of Elite Magazine:

By Paul Eisenberg

Despite being the largest metropolitan region in the state that declares itself the “Land of Lincoln,” the Chicago area comes up notably short when it comes to historic sites and commemorations of our 16th President. Chicago’s Lincoln Park - named in 1865 to honor the recently assassinated president - does not contain a statue of Abraham Lincoln, though Grant Park does.
Lincoln’s legacy, it seems, remains solely in the propriety of downstate communities, despite the fact that he was nominated by his party for the presidency in Chicago. Chicago’s suburbs are even more bereft of Lincoln commemorations, with the main exception being the Lincoln Highway, built in the 1920s in the south and southwest suburbs as part of one of the nation’s first transcontinental paved road systems.
But Lincoln had a role in the early success of one of the southwest suburbs’ most historic towns. He was a vocal proponent of the development of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which provided a water link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River in an age when water transportation was the most efficient way to move people and goods long distances. Once viable, the canal led to the explosive growth of Chicago, but the canal headquarters was located several miles south of the city, in Lockport. It’s there that chief engineer William Gooding established his office, eventually overlooking the city’s Public Landing area, a bustling hub of commerce at the time. Gooding also just happened to be a good friend of Lincoln, and it’s likely that the future president stopped off in Lockport while traveling the canal between LaSalle and Chicago, perhaps on several occasions.
Now, those visits by arguably America’s greatest president will be commemorated with a new park in Lockport that will be anchored by a newly commissioned sculpture depicting the president. Still called the Public Landing, the area in Lockport adjacent to the now trickling canal and flanked by the historic Gaylord and Norton buildings has been restored to a semblance of what it might have looked like more than two centuries ago, minus the archaic forms of commerce, such as flatboats. In fact, while the canal hasn’t been navigable for many decades. But at one time, the man-made waterway was 120 feet wide at the Public Landing, one of the few spots that allowed boats to turn around.
That’s one of the elements of the area that has been nearly lost to history, said Steve Cardamone, who for more than a year has spearheaded efforts to transform the site from a hodgepodge of historic and reproduction structures into an accurate depiction of life during Lincoln’s early days. Another element nearly lost to history, he said, is Lincoln’s presence in the area.
“Some stories get lost over time,” he said. “But we’ve been able to unearth a lot of good information that ties Lincoln to the city of Lockport. Lincoln went up and down the canal, and he would have stopped off to see his good friend here.”
Lincoln is also tied to the site in other ways. As president, he ordered military units from Chicago to use the canal on their way to the Battle of Vicksburg. And after he was assassinated, his funeral train passed through Lockport.
“He had a connection here in life and in death,” Cardamone said.
Giving something back
The project was the brainstorm of former Lockport resident and trustee Bob Carr and his wife Jill, now residents of Princeton, New Jersey, who established the Give Something Back Foundation. The organization primarily focuses on education and awards scholarships to Lockport area youth, among other activities. But the foundation also put together the funding for the Public Landing project, which included $1.5 million to move the existing structures to another location. Formerly known as the Lockport Settlement, a number of structures has been moved to the site in the 1970s, in part to save them from demolition.
“But,” Cardamone said, “none of them were indigenous to Lockport.”
“Some people thought they had been there since the 1800s,” he added, but that gave people the wrong impression about the city’s history. In addition, some of the structures were in disrepair, and others “were built in the 1980s to look old.” Now moved a few blocks away to a former oil refinery site, the structures were repaired as part of the moving process and await their permanent home.
With the removal of the structures, the area now gives a much better representation of how the area looked in Lincoln’s time, he said, with the exception of the new Lincoln-themed sculpture. The artwork depicts the three phases of Lincoln's life in which he was associated with Lockport.
Because the Give Something Back Foundation primarily involves itself with education, Cardamone said the rehabilitation of the park had to include some educational components. Designers were able to incorporate bronze medallions containing interpretive information into the walking paths, so as not to impede unbroken views of the Landing with obtrusive signage.
“We wanted to keep everything very flat,” he said. “We really wanted to keep the feel of the way the landing would have been. Now, with two important buildings, the Gaylord and Norton buildings, serving as bookends, it gives it a campus feel. It leads people to believe this space must have been important.”
Cardamone said history buffs and students can take three different interpretive paths, each telling a different story about the canal days in Lockport and Lincoln’s life.
In addition, with the help of historians, the foundation is developing a curriculum that area teachers can download for free, which can help bring the history of the area home to students. Another element invites children to participate in a sort of scavenger hunt, finding elements mentioned in historic documents within the park.
“In the journal of a member of the Canadian military who passed through here, he mentions his pocket knife,” Cardamone said. “We ask the kids to find where the pocket knife appears in the park.”
Opening soon
The timing of the development couldn’t be better. Not only is the nation and state preparing to celebrate Lincoln’s 200th birthday, the new Lincoln attraction comes at a time when state budget cuts are forcing the closure of other Illinois Lincoln sites, like the Lincoln Log Cabin in downstate Lerrna. What’s more, the Lockport park is set to open with a ceremony on Feb. 12, Lincoln’s birthday.
But the splash of the grand opening is just the beginning for Carr and Cardamone.
“There’s lots of powerful history that went right through Lockport,” Cardamone said. “Some of these stories have been dormant for decades, and now we have the chance to bring them back to life.”

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