The Hudson River Railroad finally reached Peekskill in 1849. Early City Historian Carlton B. Scofield described the original station as a “grimy, wooden shack measuring twelve by fourteen feet.” Due to a fire and the expansion of the railroad line to Poughkeepsie in 1850 and then to Albany in 1851, it was clear a new and larger station was needed. The combination Greek and Gothic Revival station visited by Lincoln in 1861 is one of only two surviving original locations visited by Lincoln on his Inaugural Journey. The other is located in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln’s trip began. The depot originally served as a combination passenger station and freight depot. The depot was eventually abandoned for passenger use in 1874 when the present Romanesque Style station was opened on Railroad Avenue. Although there are no known records showing the exact date the depot was constructed, the earliest known map depicting the depot is from 1852. An original copy of this map is on display in the museum.
Abraham Lincoln left Springfield, Illinois on February 11, 1861 and arrived in Washington DC on February 23rd for his upcoming Inauguration as President of the United States. His stop in Peekskill on February 19th was his only stop in Westchester County. He stopped at the invitation of one of Peekskill’s most prominent citizens, William Nelson, a local lawyer and former Congressman serving with Lincoln from 1847-49. Two village residents attending Lincoln’s visit were Chauncey M. Depew (26 years old) and James W. Husted (27 years old). Both men were recent graduates of Yale and these local lawyers led the local supporters of Lincoln. Together, they formed the Highland Wide Awakes and led pro-Lincoln parades through the streets of Peekskill. Both would go on to prominence of their own. Depew was a NY State Assembly member, NY Secretary of State, Westchester County Clerk, US Senator and President of the NY Central Railroad; he played an important role in Lincoln’s reelection obtaining the votes of NY soldiers in the field. Husted served 22 years as a member of the NY State Assembly spending time as Speaker and Minority Leader and he became a Major General for the Fifth Division of the NY National Guard. Additionally, he spent time as Superintendent of Peekskill Public Schools and Harbor Master of NY.
By all accounts, a large crowd gathered to witness Lincoln’s visit. A local newspaper account reported “a large assemblage, about 1500 or thereabouts was gathered, all quiet, orderly and curiously expectant.” Past City Historian Colin Naylor Jr. further said, “Farmers and their families from all parts of Cortlandtown, Putnam County and Yorktown, joined the villagers at the station.”
First introduced by Nelson, Lincoln spoke briefly, but his impact lasted a lifetime for those who were there to witness the event. The scene was dramatic and even included student soldiers from the local military academy, later to be known as the Peekskill Military Academy. According to a published article, “The Academy boys were assigned the position of honor, forming a hollow square in the center of which was the baggage tender… and upon which the President Elect was to stand while speaking. The Jefferson Guards in citizens dress, with a cannon, were posted on the Hill in South Street, to fire a President’s salute of 21 guns.”
This historic event still resonates today as an inspiration to the study of local history and historic preservation. It caused the formation of the Lincoln Society in Peekskill in 1903, which continues to be the oldest continually active such society in the United States. Perhaps it was Chauncey Depew, as President of the railroad, who prevented the destruction of the depot building, thus enabling the citizens today to relive and celebrate Peekskill’s historic significance.
The National Park Service highlighted the importance of Lincoln’s Peekskill stop in 2011 when they included Peekskill as one of their few reenacted events commemorating the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s Inaugural Journey.
“I have but a moment to stand before you to listen to and return your kind greeting. I thank you for this reception, and for the pleasant manner in which it is tendered to me by our mutual friends. I will say in a single sentence, in regard to the difficulties that lie before me and our beloved country, that if I can only be as generously and unanimously sustained as the demonstration I have witnessed indicate I shall be, I shall not fail; but without your sustaining hands I am sure that neither I nor any other man can hope to surmount these difficulties. I trust in the course I shall pursue I shall be sustained not only by the party that elected me, but by the patriotic people of the whole country.”
The completion of the depot restoration and the creation of the Lincoln Depot Museum is not the end of the overall project of creating a historic site. In November 2014 the first phase of site work to transform the grounds to the Lincoln Depot Plaza began. The first phase will provide the proper grading of the property, the installation of historically appropriate fencing, creation of pedestrian and service entrances, a boardwalk along McGregory Brook and construction of the platform on the west side of the depot building. The second phase is planned for 2016 when the Support Building will be constructed. The support building will face Water Street and will house the museum’s gift shop, administrative offices, meeting/presentation room and public bathrooms. This phase will also include the final landscaping and pathways leading to the depot building.
Entitled “Lincoln in Peekskill,” perched on a solid block of black granite, a full-sized, bronze Abraham Lincoln stands as he might have looked on that “clear, and pleasant day,” as described by a local farmer in his diary, on February 19, 1861 as he addressed the Peekskill crowd. The statue is the creation of sculptor Richard Masloski. It is Masloski’s vision of how Lincoln might have looked as he stood on the baggage cart while making his address. The statue was unveiled to the public on October 27, 2007 with much fanfare and a large crowd of onlookers, much like when Lincoln first appeared before a crowd at that same location. On hand to help with the unveiling was former Governor George Pataki, Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer and Developer Martin Ginsburg, without whom the creation of the statue would not have been possible.
The Ginsburg Development Corporation provided the funding for the statue. The depot project was the centerpiece of a full redevelopment vision for connecting the riverfront area to the downtown business district via Central Avenue. The depot and, in turn, this statue, is positioned exactly at the intersection of Central Avenue to Water Street, thus the linchpin to that connection. The Lincoln Depot Museum and historic site represent a significant economic development component through the historic tourism it will provide.
Richard Masloski is also the creator of the Westchester County Police Memorial, Orange County Veterans Memorial, Town of Wappinger War Memorial, Yonkers Gold Star Mothers Monument and other historic pieces.
There are approximately 200 artifacts in the present exhibition of the museum consisting of items on loan as well as part of the ever-growing museum permanent collection. One of the goals of the museum is to collaborate with other museums, historical sites and individuals. Locally, the Peekskill Museum has a number of items offered on loan to the Depot Museum. Among them is an original and complete Hawkins Zouaves 9th NY Infantry Regiment uniform worn by a Peekskill resident during the war. The 9th NY played a significant role in the Battle of Antietam in 1862. The Field Library has contributed an original 1852 map of Peekskill that is the earliest known map showing the size and location of the depot visited by Lincoln. The Peekskill City School District contributed the salvaged and restored Abraham Lincoln Emancipation section of the original 1930’s WPA mural that was a fixture on the walls of the school from 1929 until it was demolished in 2009. A very significant contribution of items are on loan from Depot Foundation Director Brian D. Caplan. Caplan is a long time and well-known collector of Civil War and Lincoln memorabilia.
Along with impressive items related to President Lincoln and the Civil War, the museum highlights the contributions of local figures such as Chauncey Depew and organizations including the Peekskill Military Academy. Going forward, the museum will rotate items from its permanent collection and continue to accept and highlight items on loan. The museum is always looking for items to be donated to become part of the permanent collection. A number of items have come to the museum as donations. Special exhibitions are planned in the future and a lecture series will be established. The Lincoln Depot Museum will be a continually changing source of educational enrichment. It will be a place to be revisited over and over again.