NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: 'A. Lincoln and Family' visited Niagara Falls

CONTRIBUTEDThis is an advertisement in the 1861 Lockport City Directory for Tyler’s Dry Goods Store, 72 Main St., where First Lady Mary Lincoln purchased dress patterns during her 1861 visit to the Niagara Frontier.

Today is the 152nd anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln. We know that our 16th president visited the Niagara Frontier at least twice, and possibly three times, before he took his first oath of office in March, 1861.

In February of that year, president-elect Lincoln stopped in Buffalo while en route to his inauguration in Washington, D.C. He was met by Millard Fillmore, the 13th president, who had actually opposed Lincoln’s candidacy. A reception was held at the American Hotel on Main Street and the next day Fillmore escorted Lincoln to services at the Unitarian Church at Franklin and Eagle streets (the building is still standing) and later hosted a luncheon for him at his home on Niagara Square (now the site of the Statler Hotel). But this had not been Lincoln’s first visit to this area. 

In July 1857, the Lincolns were on their way to New York City to collect $5,000 that Lincoln was owed for legal work he had done on behalf of the Illinois Central Railroad. During their brief visit to Niagara Falls, they stayed at the Cataract House and registered as “A. Lincoln and Family, Springfield, Illinois.” Lincoln brought his wife Mary and their three sons, Robert, Willie and Tad, along on the trip (Edward had died in 1850). While they were there, the Lincolns visited Goat and Bath Island and went over to Niagara Falls, Canada (Lincoln’s only trip outside of the United States) to visit a museum on that side. They then left to continue their trip to New York and returned to Springfield in early August.

Mary Lincoln was somewhat melancholy about the experience. Writing to her sister, Emilie Todd Helm, on Sept. 20, 1857, she lamented, “The summer has so strangely and rapidly passed away. Some portions were spent most pleasantly in traveling east. We visited Niagara, Canada, New York and other points of interest. [But] when I saw the large steamers at the New York landings I felt in my heart inclined to sigh that poverty was my portion. How I long to go to Europe. I often laugh and tell Mr. Lincoln that I am determined my next husband shall be rich.”

In less than four years, Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States. Becoming First Lady fueled Mary Lincoln’s desire to be wealthy and this manifested itself in yet another visit to Niagara Falls, this time for a shopping spree. On Sept. 4, 1861, the Niagara Falls Gazette reported, “Mrs. Lincoln … arrived here … on August 28 and took rooms at the International … Mrs. Lincoln desired to avoid any formal public demonstration of respect by her friends but received all who chose to call on her in a quiet unostentatious manner befitting the wife of the head of the Nation.”

At least two of her purchases were recorded by the General Accounting Office. A notation read, “In Niagara Falls, Mrs. Lincoln purchased from Mrs. James Davy, 2 sets of Mat and Cushion, $30.00 and 1 worked table cloth, $25.00.” 

Another purchase Mrs. Lincoln made, in Lockport, caused a brief sensation when it arrived at the White House a few days after the First Lady’s return. The Lockport Daily News reported, “A suspicious looking box was received at the White House the other day addressed to Mrs. Lincoln. The President thought he smelled a mouse and ordered it opened out of doors. It was found to contain several elegant dress patterns from Tyler’s Great Cheap Dry Goods Store, 72 Main Street, Lockport, NY.” The article continued, “A great explosion of laughter followed at the expense of the President who said he could stand it for he could easily fancy Mrs. Lincoln a bride again robed in those elegant dresses.”

As far as the records show, these were the last visits that President or Mrs. Lincoln made to Niagara Falls. In May 1864, Lincoln sent several representatives to an unsuccessful “peace summit” with the Confederates in Niagara Falls, Canada, but the President himself did not attend. As Lincoln had expected, nothing came of the conference. 

Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, and died the next day. Contrary to some sources, Lincoln’s funeral train did not pass through Lockport but went from Rochester directly to Buffalo via Batavia.

NEXT WEEK: Did Lincoln visit Niagara Falls in 1848?

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.