Discovering Lincoln Family History At Hildene: Robert Todd Lincoln’s Vermont Estate

The things you find tucked away in someone’s safe after they’ve died don’t always reflect well on them. But in the case of Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s eldest child and the only one to survive to adulthood, secret documents found in his safe helped restore his image as a righteous man and a good son. In the years after his father’s assassination, his mother, Mary Todd, suffered from severe depression, paranoia and mental illness to the point where her behavior became a concern to the family.

Mary Todd, who also had to bear the burden of losing three sons that died young, was said to have an irrational fear of poverty and sometimes walked around with thousands of dollars in government bonds sewn into her outfits. After she almost jumped out of a window to escape a fire that was a figment of her imagination, Robert had her committed to an asylum in Batavia, Illinois, in 1875.

Mary Todd got a lawyer and after a trial that made her son Robert look like a dirtbag who needlessly pushed his mother into an asylum without legitimate grounds, she was released. She drifted around Europe for four years before returning to Springfield, Illinois, where she died in 1882 at age 63. The cause of death was listed as paralysis and many believe that she may have had a stroke.

In 1978, nearly 50 years after Robert Todd Lincoln died at 82, caretakers of Hildene, his country home in Manchester, Vermont, found some papers labeled “MTL Insanity Papers” in a safe tucked away in his bedroom closet. The files, which contained Robert’s correspondence with family members and medical professionals regarding his mother’s condition, revealed that he wasn’t the uncaring son he’d been portrayed as. The file proved that his concern had always been his mother’s health and well-being.

Learning more about Robert Todd’s complex relationship with his mother is just one of many reasons to visit Hildene, the Lincoln family home in Vermont where Robert Todd Lincoln lived and died. Visitors can tour the stately home, built in 1905, visit a beautifully restored century old Pullman car, check out the estate’s farm and take a long stroll on the estate’s extensive grounds.

Robert was said to have had a distant relationship with his father as a boy, thanks to the demands of his father’s career and the fact that he was often away from home. He was 21 when his father was assassinated but managed to carve out a remarkable career of his own, even as his mother was descending into increasingly worse mental health. He was a successful lawyer who later served as the U.S. Secretary of War and U.S. Ambassador to The United Kingdom before becoming the President and Chairman of the Pullman Company.

When Robert was 20, he and his mother stayed at the Equinox Hotel and he was taken by the natural beauty of the Manchester area. He vowed to return one day and did just that 40 years later, purchasing a 500-acre plot that was to become a country home that would serve as a residence for Lincoln family descendants until 1975. While his father kept his summer home just miles from the White House, Robert Todd preferred Vermont’s natural splendor. Today, the residence is maintained by the non-profit Friends of Hildene, and if you don’t mind plunking down $400-500 per night, you can stay at the Equinox if you want the full Lincoln experience.

My children enjoyed petting the farm animals but the highlight of the visit for me was touring Sunbeam, a restored 1903 Pullman car that was moved to Hildene a few years ago to honor Robert time at the company and the fact that his father signed the Transcontinental Railways Act, which paved the way for the construction of the transcontinental railroad. In the heyday of trail travel, more than 100,000 Americans slept on Pullman cars while traveling around the country each day. It might have taken forever to get from Chicago to New York, but if you take a walk through Sunbeam, you’ll wish it were still possible to travel the country in Pullman style.

[Photos and videos by Dave Seminara]

Where was Abe Lincoln’s summer home? Hint: it wasn’t in the Hamptons

Kennedy had Hyannisport. Bush 41 summered in Kennebunkport, Maine. Bush 43 favored his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Nixon loved his La Casa Pacifica Mansion in San Clemente, California. The Clintons had Martha’s Vineyard until Dick Morris, their pollster, told them it was too posh. A variety of presidents used Camp David to unwind. The Obama’s favor Hawaii. But what about Abe Lincoln? What did the man that most historians consider America’s greatest president do for vacation?

Perched on a hill in a gritty, working class neighborhood of Washington D.C., around the corner from stores with heavily fortified protective grills and an Eritrean Orthodox Church, sits one of the city’s most compelling, yet off-the-beaten-track tourist destinations. The Hamptons it is not. It’s the Soldiers’ Home, which served as the Lincoln family’s seasonal “cottage” retreat from 1862-4.

The Lincoln family moved into the Victorian style cottage 150 years ago shortly after the death of their eleven-year-old son Willie, who probably drank contaminated water from the Potomac and caught typhoid fever, one of the great scourges of the era. Like any grieving family, the Lincolns needed a change of scenery — someplace quiet, away from the bustle, foul air and contagious diseases that plagued crowded D.C.

The family moved into the Soldiers’ Home, a house that was built in 1842 for the Washington banking tycoon who founded Riggs Bank. The house is on the grounds of America’s first home for retired and disabled, enlisted veterans. When Lincoln moved in there were a few hundred veterans living on the grounds and there were also Union soldiers camping out in tents on the premises. Veterans still live on the grounds today.

Every morning from April or May through November, Lincoln would make the three-mile, 30-minute commute down the hill into D.C. on horseback. His advisors wanted him to make the trip with a cavalry security entourage, but Abe preferred to leave before they arrived, so he could go alone, stopping on the way to chat with soldiers and freed slaves who gave him a real picture of what life was like for ordinary people during the war. Last year, museum staff tried to reenact his horse ride and it took two hours due to traffic and lights.

Other presidents aside from Lincoln also spent time at the home, including Presidents Hayes, Buchanan and Arthur, but none were as attached to the place as the Lincolns reportedly were. After it fell out of fashion as a presidential retreat, it went back to being used as a veterans’ office, and part of it was turned into what was called Lincoln’s Lounge & Pub. (Never mind the fact that Abe was a teetotaler.)

According to my GPS, the home sits at an elevation of just 460 feet, but that’s a few hundred feet higher than the White House, so they believed that the place was a bit breezier and healthier as well. Today, the notion of traveling three miles away to “Get away from it all,” seems absurd — but it wasn’t at the time. There was no morning Tai Chi or organic food, but it was a kind of holistic retreat for the family before that term was invented.

Lincoln was seen riding his favorite horse, Big Bob, around the grounds of the cottage on April 13, 1865, the day before he was assassinated. 135 years later, President Clinton declared the site a National Monument, and after an eight-year restoration project it was opened to the public on President’s Day in 2008.

It’s the only tourist attraction in D.C. that offers free parking, and the $12 entry fee buys visitors an informative guided tour as well as entry into the small but well organized museum in the visitor’s center (reservations recommended). The lifelike statue of Lincoln out front is exactly six feet four-and-a-half inches tall, so step right up to it to get an idea of what it might have been like to stand toe-to-toe with Honest Abe. (The hat brings him up to seven feet tall.) If you’re interested in knowing more about Lincoln’s life, this is a must stop in a somewhat obscure area of D.C.

These days the neighborhood isn’t the quiet, country retreat it once was — on my visit, the din of construction cranes could be heard in the distance. But there’s still a view of the Capitol, which was under construction when Lincoln lived there.

The Hampton’s designer-dog-in-a-purse crowd is nowhere to be found and no one would confuse the neighborhood with Hyannisport or Martha’s Vineyard, but walking around the grounds of the place, it’s not hard to conjure a vision of big Abe in his stovepipe hat riding up the hill on horseback after a long day at the White House.