In 1860, the lower Hudson Valley had only about 120,000 residents. To the north, farmland; to the south, industries such as iron foundries, sawmills, textile makers, and gun factories. Those geographic and economic differences greatly impacted political views, much as they do today.
With the Civil War looming, the rural northern region supported presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. But the more populous, industrial south—along with New York City and the three major local newspapers, the Eastern State Journal (White Plains), the Yonkers Herald, and the Highland Democrat (Peekskill)—opposed him. More than any other county in the state, Westchester was divided: Vernon Benjamin, author of The History of the Hudson River Valley, wrote, “The county was a sort of Mason-Dixon line for the state, running roughly through Tarrytown.”
After winning the election, Lincoln made his first official visit to Westchester County on February 19, 1861, when he stopped in Peekskill on the way to his inauguration. The stop was a favor to William Nelson, a former U.S. congressman and friend. According to The New York Times, Lincoln came out onto the coach platform, where “the president-elect listened to a brief introduction, said 138 words to the crowd of 1,000, and then headed off for Washington. It was the only time he ever came to Westchester.” Not surprising since Lincoln had lost the county’s vote, to the Union-Electoral “anti-Lincoln” party, by a wide margin.
In typically lyrical prose, his 138 words were these: “Ladies and gentlemen. 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 friend. I will say in a single sentence, in regard to the difficulties which lie before me and our beloved country, that if I can only be as generously and unanimously sustained as the demonstrations 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 that 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.”
Over a year later, Lincoln returned to the Hudson Valley during a secret visit to West Point and the foundry that made the infamous “Parrott gun,” a cannon that greatly aided the North’s war effort. While attending a test firing of this powerful but dangerous weapon—it was inaccurate and prone to exploding—he was reportedly unimpressed. The cannons were fired at Storm King Mountain, but Lincoln said, “I’m confident you can hit that mountain over there, so suppose we get something to eat.” They ended up at nearby Cozzen’s Hotel (which burned down shortly after) where “the president charmed all the ladies with his conversational powers and affability,” according to Following in Lincoln’s Footsteps by Ralph Gary.
Lincoln’s last trip to the region was posthumous. His funeral train stopped in Peekskill on April 25, 1865, on the way back to his home in Springfield, Illinois.
His first visit was commemorated in 1925, when the local Lincoln Society sponsored the creation of the Lincoln Exedra, a granite portico with a curved bench and large bronze plaque with the portrait of his face and an inscription. It looks over the site of the original circa-1861 depot and tracks on Central Avenue in Peekskill. And in 2005, then-Governor George Pataki, former mayor of Peekskill, received initial funding for the 3,000-square-foot Lincoln Depot Museum (in the refurbished freight station on South Water Street), which opened in 2014. Visit lincolndepotmuseum.org for more information.
David Levine is the author of The Hudson Valley: The First 250 Million Years.