LAWRENCE — Just as local war hero Sumner Henry Needham did 148 years ago, nine members of the Lawrence Civil War Memorial Guard hopped a train bound for Baltimore early yesterday.
Like Cpl. Needham, they were on a serious mission when they arrived at President Street Station. Needham went to save the Union. This group went to save the historic train terminal which now sits vacant.
"We're going down there on a mission to save history," said Elizabeth Charlton, the guard's vice president, as she stood near the Sumner H. Needham Memorial in Bellevue Cemetery earlier this week. "The President Street Station is the oldest big-city train station in the United States. It's endangered, And we're going down there to help save it."
President Street Station is where Needham arrived on April 19, 1861, as part of the Sixth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia Group. He and his unit were walking to another station to board a train to Washington D.C. when they were attacked by a southern sympathizing mob. It is considered by historians as the first bloodshed of the American Civil War.
Needham was struck in the back of the head with a brick or cobblestone tossed from a rooftop. Although he's often characterized as "the first union soldier" to die in the Civil War, he actually lingered in a vegetative state for several days in a Washington, D.C. hospital before he died several days later at age 33.
The station was used for passengers until 1911, and later for freight trains. It was abandoned in 1970 and left vacant until 1997 when it reopened as a Civil War museum. That museum closed in 2007 and now sits unused.
"It's in real danger of being torn down or being reused for something inappropriate - like a hotel," said Charlton. "I would like to think anyone who has any interest in Civil War history or Massachusetts history or President Lincoln would be able to continue to visit there. If you put a hotel there, you'll never know it's been there."