For many Western New Yorkers, history is something that happens somewhere else, but never here. With Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited Abraham Lincoln film arriving in local theaters, though, it’s time to recall the special place that the Buffalo Niagara region held in the life and imagination of perhaps America’s greatest president.

First stop: Westfield

Immediately after his November 1860 victory, President-elect Lincoln began weighing the precarious balance between a nation struggling through adolescence, and his infant presidency. Teetering on the brink of warring on itself, with seven Southern states already seceded, America was about to be led by its first president born west of the Appalachians, elected by less than a majority of voters, about whom most citizens knew very little.

Lincoln’s solution was to not travel directly from his Illinois home to Washington for his March inauguration. Instead, he charted a circuitous route that would let as many people as possible take his measure. A brilliant mind, disguised as a backwoods lawyer, Lincoln instructed his trip planners to take him to areas where he did well in the election.

After traversing Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and western Pennsylvania, Lincoln’s “Presidential Special” train passed into New York State on Feb. 16, 1861. Its first stop was the Chautauqua County seat of Westfield where, in the middle of his brief remarks, Lincoln asked whether “a Miss Grace Bedell” was among the audience. The 12-year-old had written Lincoln during the campaign, suggesting that he grow a beard because “you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin.” Little Grace climbed the train platform, Lincoln leaned down to kiss her cheek, and insisted that she and her mom ride along to Washington and be his guests at the inauguration. As historian Ted Widmer has noted, Bedell died in 1936, at age 87, never forgetting the day she saw Lincoln’s thin frame, large hands and sad eyes. Today in Westfield, statues of the two enshrine the moment when the president met the plucky girl from Chautauqua.

Huge crowd in Buffalo

Later that day, Lincoln’s train pulled into Buffalo’s Exchange Street Station on the East Side. Awaiting him were more than 75,000 people, among the largest crowds of the trip, according to John Hay, a young Brown University graduate just hired by the president-elect, who later wrote of the journey.

When Lincoln descended the train, the crowd erupted and collapsed on him and his host, former President Millard Fillmore. Those caught close in the crush would recall being struck by Lincoln’s surprising height. The soldiers guarding Lincoln, Hay wrote, “were swept away like weeds before an angry current.” Lincoln kept his smile, never flinched and, with his long, creaky gait, walked between the crowd, as a longtime observer described, “as if he needed oiling.”

If you got close to Thomas Jefferson, you could hear just under his breath melodies he constantly hummed to himself. Read any story of what it was like to meet Theodore Roosevelt, and the words “motion” and “energy” appear. But virtually everyone who encountered Lincoln described a sense of serenity that enveloped him and seemed to slow down time as he focused his attention+ on you.

Arriving at the American Hotel on Main Street between Court and Eagle streets (where Main Place Mall stands today), Lincoln stepped out onto the hotel balcony. In a hoarse but becalming voice, he told the crowd squeezed into every inch of Main Street that he’d come to Buffalo, so “that I may see you and that you may see me, and in the arrangement I have the best of the bargain.”

At evening’s end, Lincoln asked Fillmore if he could attend services the next morning. The request surprised Fillmore, who’d heard that Lincoln wasn’t keen on organized religion. The next morning, the two attended Sunday services at First Unitarian Church at the corner of Franklin and Eagle streets (now an Erie County office building). After worship, Fillmore and Lincoln chatted outside the church, gazing on the former Franklin Square Cemetery site (where today sits Old County Hall), which overlooked a gently sloping lawn down to the city’s “lower terrace” and waterfront. Lincoln remarked on the uniqueness of such a bucolic setting in the midst of a city.

Ten years later, in 1871, construction began on what is now Old County Hall. In tribute to Lincoln’s affection for the site, when visitors pass through its entrance, the first words they see along its vaulted ceiling honor his Gettysburg Address, in which Lincoln praised “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Falls inspires poetry

When Lincoln stepped down from his train in Buffalo in 1861, he did not gaze on unfamiliar ground. He’d been in Western New York before, as a young congressman and tourist, and was entirely enchanted with us.

Returning to Illinois from a New England speaking engagement in autumn 1848, and like millions of tourists before and after him, Congressman Lincoln stopped in Western New York to view Niagara Falls. The movement and majesty of water and nature made a mark on him. Taking pen to a piece of notepaper, Lincoln wrote a series of poetic images on the plunging water that “never dried, never froze, never slept, never rested …” For perhaps America’s greatest public man of prose, Lincoln’s poetry was pedestrian. But he didn’t mind. He kept a piece of crinkled notepaper in his jacket pocket with his thoughts on the falls for the rest of his life. And even when greeted with rolled eyes and a “here he goes again” response of listeners, he’d take it out and recite his emotions about Niagara Falls over and over again.

Describing his thought process once to a friend, Lincoln said, “I’m slow to learn and slow to forget what I have learned. My mind is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch anything on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.” In July 1857, Lincoln returned to Niagara Falls with his wife, staying in the Cataract House hotel, where he signed the guest register, “A. Lincoln and family.” They viewed the falls from Prospect Point and traveled to Goat Island. Lincoln was intrigued by the combination of world wonder and international border, a setting that would return to his mind at a critical moment in a savage war.

Niagara peace initiative

By summer 1864, three years into the Civil War – perhaps the greatest slaughter of young men in mankind’s history – both the Union and the Confederacy had suffered shocking loss of life. Even adamant Northern unionists and abolitionists began to entertain thoughts of a negotiated peace with the rebel states.

That July, three Confederate emissaries snuck into Union territory, made their way to Buffalo and crossed over into Canada. Purporting to have authority to negotiate a treaty with the Union, through an intermediary they contacted Horace Greely, editor of the New York Tribune, and asked him to pass on their offer to Lincoln.

Greely wrote several missives to the president urging him to take seriously the peace entrée. But as Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald wrote, the president sensed trouble. He knew that the Confederacy’s interest in an armistice was not genuine, and he guessed that their emissaries were in Niagara Falls not to seek peace but to make political trouble for him in the upcoming 1864 election. Having been in Niagara Falls, Canada, Lincoln knew its proximity to New York State, and surmised that the Confederates’ true intent was to stir up New York’s “peace Democrats” who opposed his re-election. And yet he couldn’t ignore the overture for fear of appearing uninterested in ending the bloodshed.

Lincoln’s solution marked a historic moment in the war and in history. It was the first time the president formally included ending slavery as a condition to ceasing hostilities. Drafting his response to the secret agents in Niagara Falls, Lincoln wrote that if the rebel states consented to full restoration of the Union and “the abandonment of slavery,” he was willing to talk. Knowing the rebels would never agree, Lincoln addressed the historic document, “To Whom It May Concern,” and dispatched an aide to carry it to the Cataract House.

The scent of lilacs

After his assassination on April 14, 1865, it was decided that Lincoln’s final journey home to Illinois should retrace the route that he’d traveled from Springfield to Washington in 1861. Led by an engine that carried Lincoln’s photograph at its front, and bearing more than 300 mourners, the funeral train left Washington on April 21.

Spring 1865 had arrived early and warm along America’s Eastern Seaboard, bringing an unusually robust bloom to the season’s flowers. It was a particularly strong year for lilacs. Beginning in Washington, and continuing in Philadelphia and New York City, the president’s catafalque was covered in piles of flowers, mostly lilacs, and their soothing fragrance seemed to waft over the entire procession. The vivid colors and scent inspired Walt Whitman’s poem commemorating the funeral, “When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom’d,” and, as Doris Kearns Goodwin has written, gave rise to the tradition of offering flower arrangements for wakes and funerals that continues today.

At 7 a.m. on April 27, the funeral train slowly and silently pulled into Buffalo’s Exchange Street Station. Lincoln’s casket was eased off the train and placed on a funeral car drawn by six white horses dressed in black. The procession made its way over to Main Street and St. James Hall (site of M&T Plaza today), where the open casket lay for public viewing. More than 100,000 Western New Yorkers passed through the hall.

In the mid 1960s, when I was 10 years old, my father introduced me to an elderly woman who told me a story that her grandmother had told her about the night that Lincoln’s funeral train, after making its Buffalo stop, passed through the Village of Hamburg. The train paused on the tracks, and the doors of the car bearing Lincoln’s casket briefly opened. And this woman’s grandmother, a young girl at the time, retained three vivid memories of that moment: the bright colors of the American flag draping the coffin; the erect posture of four Union soldiers standing sentry over their fallen leader; and the scent of lilacs pouring forth from the train car.

Nation’s caretaker

Novelist Alice McDermott builds much of her writing on the idea that the world is divided into two types of people: caretakers and non-caretakers. The caretakers empathize with the feelings of others as naturally as the rest of us breathe. They cannot rest until they’ve reduced another’s suffering, or eased another’s pain. If this thesis is true, then Lincoln may have been our nation’s foremost caretaker.

His preternatural yearning for knowledge certainly shaped Lincoln’s life. Before his teen years were out, and surrounded by people unable to read, Lincoln had immersed himself in John Milton, Robert Burns, the King James Bible, Euclid and William Shakespeare. He loved Shakespeare’s comedies, loved the tragedies even more and could recite by heart long passages from Hamlet. And yet Lincoln also adored Stephen Foster banjo tunes, the country humor of Artemus Ward, and the spectacle of P.T. Barnum’s circus. Most of his legendary stories, told to make complex political points, were always plain, at times corny, and often included a bathroom humor that would make Will Ferrell blush.

But it is Lincoln the caretaker who endures. He took great care of the public idea of America, the private misery of his wife, those who suffered war’s unspeakable loss and, most important, those who by accident of birth lived a life in bondage.

According to Lincoln essayist Jan Morris, 35 American towns and cities and 22 counties are named for Lincoln. At least 125 statues of him exist, including two in Buffalo, and an endless number of roads and bridges bear his name – including Buffalo’s Lincoln Parkway.

As Donald noted, Lincoln once described his family history, borrowing the words of Grey’s Elegy, as “the short and simple annals of the poor.” So perhaps what endeared Western New York and its people to Lincoln were traits he recognized in himself: working-class strength, modest bearing and, in the face of a heavy and at times unforgiving life, a light touch, and a little looking out for one another.

Lincoln’s gift to Buffalo

Toward the end of the Civil War, Lincoln developed a policy of rewarding those communities that sent large numbers of young men to fight. He was particularly interested in those cities that sent and lost a large number of its sons. In this regard, the City of Buffalo came to his attention.

It was decided that in recognition of Buffalo’s contribution to preserving the Union, the federal government would finance completion of the city’s harbor wall, first begun in the 1820s south of the city and north in Black Rock. When finally completed in 1903, Buffalo’s harbor wall stood as the world’s longest, spanning from what is now the City of Lackawanna to the Black Rock Channel. Today, it is known for requiring minimum maintenance, and is considered among the best-built harbor walls in America.

Kevin Gaughan is a Buffalo attorney and civic leader.