Barnett Museum Visitors - Abraham Lincoln

“Then as now, Niagara was roaring here”:

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)  Signature of “A. Lincoln + Family” taken from the Niagara Falls Museum Register for 1857 and pasted into a collage of famous signatures. Niagara Falls Museums, 2015.30.1.

Illustration of Abraham Lincoln and his family by Harry B. Chase. Published in Robert S. Barton (1952) “A. Lincoln & Family go Sight-Seeing”, collected in Early Speeches of Abraham Lincoln (see ‘Sources’)One of the most famous visitors to sign the guest books is Abraham Lincoln, who visited the Museum with his family on July 25th, 1857. He was joined by his wife, Mary Todd, and probably by his sons Robert (14), William ‘Willie’ (7) and Thomas ‘Tad’ (4). At the time, Lincoln was active in politics, but was still 3 years away from receiving the Republican Party nomination for President.

Cataract House hotel in Niagara Falls, New York. Taken from a stereograph by George Barker. Credit: New York Public Library. During that visit, the Lincolns stayed at the Cataract House hotel on the American side of the border, as attested by the same ‘A. Lincoln & Family’ signature found in their hotel register for July 24th. An interesting physical relic of this visit is on display at the Niagara Wax Museum of History in Niagara Falls, N.Y.; a barber’s chair from the Cataract house in which Lincoln purportedly sat to receive a shave.

But that was not Lincoln’s first visit to Niagara Falls. He had already visited at least once, nearly a decade earlier. In 1848, Lincoln was operating a successful law practice in Springfield, Illinois having already served terms in the Illinois and U.S. Houses of Representatives. That Fall, he was in New England campaigning for the Whig Party, of which he was at that time a member. On his way home, he decided to make a stop at the famous Falls.

After this visit, Lincoln’s business partner William H. Herndon asked him what had impressed him most. Lincoln replied pithily, “The thing that struck me most forcibly when I saw the Falls was, where in the world did all that water come from?”

Photographic reproduction of an ambrotype of Lincoln made August 25, 1858, by Mr. T. P. Pierson in Macomb, Illinois. Published in Schurz, Carl, and Frederic Bancroft. (1907) The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz. New York: McClure, pg. 84. While Herndon interpreted this as reflective of Lincoln’s pragmatic attitude, there is evidence that Lincoln’s reaction to the natural wonder was much more complex and appreciative than this one-liner suggests. Found among Lincoln’s papers after his death was a fragment of his musings about Niagara Falls, perhaps a draft for a lecture that was never given. While the fragment is undated (and unfinished), Lincoln scholars believe that he composed it during or immediately after this 1848 trip.

“Niagara-Falls! By what mysterious power is it that millions and millions, are drawn from all parts of the world, to gaze upon Niagara Falls? There is no mystery about the thing itself. Every effect is just such as any inteligent [sic] man knowing the causes, would anticipate, without [seeing] it. If the water moving onward in a great river, reaches a point where there is a perpendicular jog, of a hundred feet in descent, in the bottom of the river,---it is plain the water will have a violent and continuous plunge at that point. It is also plain the water, thus plunging, will foam, and roar, and send up a mist, continuously, in which last, during sunshine, there will be perpetual rain-bows. The mere physical of Niagara Falls is only this. Yet this is really a very small part of that world's wonder. It's [sic] power to excite reflection, and emotion, is it's [sic] great charm…”

“But still there is more. It calls up the indefinite past. When Columbus first sought this continent---when Christ suffered on the cross---when Moses led Israel through the Red-Sea---nay, even, when Adam first came from the hand of his Maker---then as now, Niagara was roaring here...Co[n]temporary with the whole race of men, and older than the first man, Niagara is strong, and fresh to-day as ten thousand years ago...In that long---long time, never still for a single moment. Never dried, never froze, never slept, never rested, [unfinished]”.

Clearly, Niagara Falls had made an indelible impression on Abraham Lincoln. It was an experience he wanted to share with his family and a memory he wanted to carry forever.

 To discover more about the people who visited the first museum in Canada, check out our guest registry page

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