By Mark E. Vogler
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."
Charlton's husband Sean Sweeney and their 15-year-old son Morrgan Sweeney-Charlton - both guard members - also set out on this historic-saving journey. Other members who made the trip were guard president Larry West and his wife Mara, Joe Bella, Jacques Fournier, Justin DeJesus and Matt Murray.
The guard toted luggage onto the train yesterday that was stuffed with replica uniforms typical of those worn by the Sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Militia. They'll wear them as they join other Civil War renactors in a parade and other weekend events commemorating the 148th anniversary of the Baltimore Riot.
The guard plans to tour all of the sites where the Sixth Massachusetts regiment stayed.
Lawrence Mayor Michael Sullivan has also written a proclamation for their trip, declaring today "President Street Station Remembrance Day." The guard has assigned Morrgan Sweeney-Charlton the duty of reading it.
In his proclamation, Sullivan hailed the endangered landmark as "a station steeped in nationally significant history; a place that President Abraham Lincoln traveled to and from; the last stop on the underground railroad before the Promised Land where many a weary slave traveled among them Fredrick Douglass; a station that welcomed over 500,000 Northern Countrymen during the Civil War and before them came the 6th Massachusetts Militia..."
The mayor vowed he and the guard would work with Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon and the Friends of President Street Station "to preserve President Street Station forever."
Sullivan called on Lawrence citizens, businesses and government agencies to "join with me recognizing this important event."
Charlton said residents should take interest in this building hundreds of miles away because "This is the last place Sumner Needham stepped off the train to fight for his country and what he believed."
This year's event coincides with the bicentennial celebration of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln.
Charlton hopes to see the station declared a national memorial, under the control of the National Park Service. The arched roof made it somewhat of an engineering feat in his day. It didn't need a pole support system,
SAVING THE STATION
People wishing to send donations for Presidents Street Station should write checks to Lawrence Civil War Memorial Guard citing President Street Station and mail to the guard at P.O. Box 145, Lawrence, MA 01842. Or call Elizabeth Charlton at 978-686-9881.