Visits to Illinois’ historic sites fell by 7 percent in 2015, despite the state’s commemorations of the 150th anniversaries of the Civil War’s end, President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and his burial in Springfield, according to state figures.
A 5 percent spike in attendance at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum after 2014’s lowest-ever number of visitors could not make up for a 9 percent slide at 29 other state-administered historic points — one-third of which have direct ties to the 16th president.
Last year was the first full year of shorter hours at many facilities because of a state budget crunch — which Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration pointed out began in 2014, under his predecessor — and major sites such as Lincoln’s Tomb were shuttered for months.
The numbers don’t bode well for the financially struggling state, where Rauner has made boosting economic investment the fulcrum of his plans to restore prosperity.
“Our staff worked diligently to keep our top sites open at the most convenient times for our visitors and to offer special events and programming,” Illinois Historic Preservation Agency spokesman Chris Wills said. “The result is that attendance at most of our sites did not drop as much as might have been expected.”
Most troubling was a 16 percent slump in stops at Springfield sites associated with Lincoln, who called Springfield his home. That was due in part to his tomb being under renovation from January through March and his law office closing the entire year for renovations.
“We view Springfield as the anchor to draw people to central Illinois for the Lincoln story,” said Sarah Watson, executive director of Looking For Lincoln, a National Heritage Area of 42 counties associated with the former president. “We hope that when people coming to or from Springfield to visit the Lincoln sites here, they’ll stop in other communities and learn the rest of the Lincoln story and visit sites there.”
Tourists not only walk where great figures of history walked — they eat in restaurants, sleep in hotels and gas up. In small towns particularly, Watson said, such spending “can have a sizeable impact.”
Revealing the impact that longer hours of operation can play, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site — maintained by the federal government and open seven days a week — saw 233,000 visitors in 2015, a 7 percent uptick from 2014, site superintendent Dale Phillips said. Repeatedly, rangers and volunteers said that tourists were disappointed that they could not also see the tomb or Old State Capitol, where Lincoln served as a legislator, because of limited hours, he added.
After dipping below 300,000 visitors in 2014 for the first time in its 10-year history, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum rebounded to 303,579. The May re-staging of Lincoln’s funeral featured a ceremony outside the Old State Capitol, just blocks from the library and museum, which hosted 89,000 visitors in April and May, it’s biggest two months in at least six years.
However, the library and museum’s total visitors didn’t touch its 2013 numbers, which Wills pointed was the year the critically acclaimed film “Lincoln” was released and there was wide publicity surrounding the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address.
The April anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s 1865 surrender to end the War Between the States boosted interest in the Confederate leader’s counterpart. The Galena home of Ulysses S. Grant, the Union commander who later became president, saw a 19 percent jump in attendance in 2015.