The First Hundred Miles of Route 66 has quite a long and storied legacy, but well before the Mother Road was even established, this stretch of Illinois welcomed some historically significant travelers. Join us as we walk in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln, discovering the president’s early days as a young Illinois circuit court lawyer in beautiful Pontiac, part of the Looking for Lincoln National Heritage Area. We’ll explore some of the sites and wayfinding signs that can be found across Pontiac, cluing you in on this often under-discussed time in Abraham Lincoln’s working life.
Young Lincoln Statue
Washington and Mill streets, south of courthouse
Start your journey in downtown Pontiac, just south of the courthouse. The life-sized statue depicts the young Abe Lincoln working as a traveling attorney during his county circuit court litigator days, at age 31. The figure rests against a split-rail fence, the statue reminiscent of his labors as a young man growing up on the wild Illinois prairie.
200 block of North Vermillion Street
Jessie Fell, friend of Lincoln and a true pioneer, was instrumental in the development of the city and county, and even contributed to the naming of Pontiac after the distinguished Native American chief. Fell was a visionary for his time, and a significant figure in the shaping of Pontiac, having donated the land for this city park and having a hand in naming some of the city’s streets.
Livingston County Courthouse
Washington and Mill streets, south of courthouse
Recently undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation, the site was visited by the likes of both Lincoln and his future political opponent, Stephen Douglas, while both men were practicing attorneys. However, neither served in this exact building. The current incarnation of the Livingston County Courthouse was erected 10 years after Lincoln’s death, though it remains the site where these upstart attorneys spent many days litigating cases that would shape the future of the region. Little did both men know that they would meet again as adversaries in the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates. Open daily, except Saturdays.
Lincoln Slept Here
West Side Mill Street at Mill Street Bridge
To commemorate where Lincoln slept while staying in town, Pontiac has made sure to provide visitors with an informative wayfinding sign to mark the historical spot. Located a short walk away from the county courthouse, this was once the site of several small cabins, one of which Lincoln stayed in during May 1840.
Lincoln wins county’s first lawsuit
200 block North Chicago Street
This wayfinding exhibit marks the spot of the first-ever jury trial in Livingston County, one that was won by a young Lincoln, facing off against his future debate adversary, Douglas, in a defamation of character case. It was tried in a log cabin, before the construction of the county’s first permanent courthouse. Lincoln prevailed for his client, who was accused of stealing meat.
Riverbank debate site
East Side Mill Street at Mill Street Bridge
While trying that first jury trial, Lincoln and Douglas carried their differences out into the street with an impromptu debate held at this site. A precursor of the senate debates, which would come to fruition some 18 years later, both stood riverside in this spot atop a dry goods box for the crowd of locals who gathered around.
Historic Strevell House
400 W. Livingston St.
A Pontiac lawyer and friend of Lincoln, Jason Strevell invited Lincoln to speak at the city’s Young Men’s Literary Society. Following the speech, which was deemed a moderate success, the two men stayed up for hours discussing politics, slavery and local and national issues. During the conversation, Strevell suggested Lincoln might be selected as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate at the upcoming party convention. Lincoln argued that he might be chosen as a vice-presidential candidate, but did not believe he would gain the presidential ticket.
After their marathon conversation, the 6-foot Strevell said he did not believe Lincoln was really 4 inches taller than him. Lincoln offered to let himself be measured, and stood in a doorway while Strevell made a scratch into the frame to mark Lincoln’s height. Strevell then measured from the floor to the mark on the door frame, and found Lincoln to be exactly 6-foot-4. Today, that doorjamb can be found in the permanent collection of a museum in Salt Lake City.
Lincoln Stranded Here
County Market Grocery, 200 N. Oak St.
One of the worst snowstorms in the history of the region was recorded in February 1855, stopping all transportation to and from the area – including a train bound for Springfield with none other than Lincoln. With roads blocked, a rescue party was formed to recover the freezing passengers. Lincoln was among the group that was housed at the home of John McGregor, who refused Lincoln’s offer to pay for his lodging. It is said upon his departure, Lincoln gave McGregor’s two daughters a gold coin each.
Citizens Mourn Lincoln
200 N. Vermillion St., Chicago & Alton Depot
After his untimely death, Lincoln’s body passed through Pontiac’s Chicago & Alton train depot one last time during his funerary train procession. Arriving after midnight, Lincoln’s private coach (appropriately named United States) was met at the early hour by a large crowd looking to pay their respects.
• To discover additional exciting attractions and historical sites in Pontiac, head to VisitPontiac.org
• To find more Lincoln sites throughout Illinois, visit LookingForLincoln.org