For Chris Allen, his admiration for Abraham Lincoln, the pivotal moments that cemented his respect for the 16th U.S. president, emerged in elementary school. Fifth grade, to be precise. A school trip, of which his father, Bruce, participated, to Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Lincoln City, Ind., which is in the southwestern part of the state near Evansville.
The trip was living history personified. By fourth grade, Allen, a native of Madison, Ind., knew a good deal about the president from books. But this lifted history off the page and into the real world. It had a viable immediacy: Lincoln’s early days, the loss of his mother, Nancy, to consumption when he was only 9.
“I knew going into it that this is a piece of his life,” Allen said. “I knew the rest of it, but not like this. I learned about his mother, that he lost her at an early age. Then, his sister. What struck me is that this guy lost almost half of his family, and me (at that time), I have all my family and siblings. That’s what stuck with me.”
Allen was fascinated, his interest bolstered by the fact that his hometown gave rise to The Madison and Indianapolis Railroad, the state’s first railroad incorporated in 1836, then operational by 1841 — before Lincoln’s rise to the presidency. James F.D. Lanier, one of the railroad’s original financiers, Allen says, was a major benefactor for Lincoln, helping keep Indiana solvent during the Civil War.
So, it makes sense that two threads in Allen’s formative years — trains and Abraham Lincoln — shape the ambitious project that has him touring the state to rally support. The 52-year-old from Westfield, Ind., who works in trades and annuities, is executive director of the Westfield-based The Lincoln Special. His goal: raise $6.5 million to shoot a film called “Of Tears and Iron” that weaves fictional characters into the story of the president’s 1865 funeral train. It is based on his original screenplay begun in 2015.
Allen is making trips throughout Indiana to where the train stopped to create awareness and raise funds for a feasibility study.
Michigan City included, of course.
The slain president’s funeral train stopped in our fair city on May 1, 1865, the community united in presenting an honorary funeral.
Allen is ironing out the details to make a presentation here, weather-dependent, on Jan. 6, 2024. In a perfect world, if all goes as planned, “Of Tears and Iron” begins filming in spring 2025.
Why now? Why tell this story? Allen does not mince words, especially in the context of today’s tumultuous world climate.
“What a better story to tell than Lincoln’s final story,” he says. “His story continues on. I learned that after the death of my father. My dad’s story didn’t end when he died in 2008. I learned in my own grief therapy, a person’s life continues on. And here we are, talking about Lincoln years after his death. There is a reason why the Lincoln Memorial is as big as it is.
“What a great way to hopefully lower the temperature in society by reminding folks that we’ve been through this before, we can get through this. Here is a guy whose words and wisdom, wow, what a better person to look to right now.” Lincoln was assassinated at the hands of John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre on April 15, 1865.
The ensuing three weeks contained events designed for the nation to mourn, and memorialize, their president. Among them was a funeral train, dubbed “The Lincoln Special,” whose route spanned 1,654 miles and seven states on its way to the burial site in Springfield, Ill. It is estimated that millions caught a glimpse of the train as it made its solemn journey.
It should be noted the train’s route was strategically designed to retrace the president’s journey to Washington when he was first inaugurated four years prior.
Mary Todd Lincoln, devastated by her husband’s death, was not present on the train; however, her eldest son, Robert Todd, made the journey, joined, sadly, by the remains of his younger brother, William Wallace Lincoln, who died from typhoid fever in 1862.
For Allen, his passion for all things Lincoln never diminished. It just took periodic back seat, as life has a way of getting in the way of youthful dreams and aspirations. He worked for a time in public television, learning the elements of direction and production from that experience.
“You know, in your 20s, you’re out chasing the world and having fun,” Allen said. “I knew I wanted to make movies, even in my early 20s. And I set out doing that, made a bunch of stuff no one has ever heard of. But, I learned a lot. Experience is a wonderful teacher, and I was teaching myself film.”
Allen also became a husband to his loving wife, Sandy. They have one son, Sam, who is now 15.
“When you have kids, your priorities change,” he said. “My philosophy was, the best job is being a father, and that’s what I did.
“Now, Sam’s 15,” he continued. “He’s finding his own way, and I’m thinking, what am I turning the keys over to when I go? I don’t like what I see here. I want to make the world better. I know I’m not going to change the world, but if I can move the needle in the right direction, that’s the way to go.”
Sam’s own interest in trains as a child reignited his father’s interest in Lincoln’s funeral train. A trip with Sam when he was 4 to Madison sparked his interest in its rich railroad history. And when 2015 marked the 150th anniversary of the funeral train, Allen was fired up to begin work on an original script. It was a 2 to 2 1/2 year process, working with an editor to make changes, to shape the narrative into a cohesive story.
In 2018, he met politician and civil rights activist John Lewis, who represented Georgia’s 5th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives right until his death two years later in 2020. Lewis, at the time, was set to mark the 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s speech the night Martin Luther King was assassinated.
The year 2020, as we know, was unprecedented for other reasons. COVID-19 introduced itself, the pandemic putting life on hold as we knew it. It was also the year George Floyd Jr. was killed by a police officer during a Minneapolis arrest, elevating the issues of race and police brutality to the forefront of American discourse.
The combination of social unrest, and a global pandemic forcing everyone to self-isolate, only convinced Allen now was the time, more than ever, to proceed with his screenplay. It tells the story of Ben, a fugitive slave intent on seeing Lincoln’s funeral train. That journey, which includes Ben’s longtime friend Samuel, contains its shares of triumph and heartbreak as Ben finds himself conflicted. Heading to Canada seems like the best alternative, but what happens to African Americans here after his death?
Allen created a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization, The Lincoln Special, to get the ball rolling on his film. He assembled a board that includes:
Shannon Brown, a historian and researcher who was part of the team that aimed to recreate a full scale replica of Lincoln’s funeral train.
C. Ellen Connally, who served as a law clerk for the 8th District Court of Appeals and magistrate for the Cuyahoga County Probate Court in Ohio before being elected to the Cleveland Municipal Court in 1980, serving until 2004. She was the first black woman in Ohio elected judge without first being appointed.
Honorary board member Tina Cosby, who was a WISH TV-8 anchor for many years, and now hosts a daily radio show on Indianapolis’ 92.7 FM called “Community Connection with Tina Cosby.”
Ed Ernstes, who for many years was a WSBT-TV reporter in South Bend, and who has been involved in film projects with local Oscar-nominated director John Hancock (“The Looking Glass,” “The Girls of Summer.”)
Allen wants the best production values for “Of Tears and Iron.” Shot on 35mm film on location, and with a professional crew from the region and the U.S.
“I don’t want to get out there with an iPhone and shoots on weekends,” Allen said with a laugh.
“I think it deserves the right stuff, so to speak, because it’s our nation’s story. This is something not a lot of people know about.” Allen is pounding the pavement, holding meetings across the state to spread the word on the film.
So far, that has included Richmond, Knightstown, Greenfield, Indianapolis, Zionsville and Colfax. Upcoming stops include not only Michigan City, but also Lafayette, San Pierre and Hammond. Allen prefers meeting with people in person than through Zoom or other online means.
“We’re cutting through the digital noise and Facebook and other social media,” he said. “The meetings are crucial because people pay attention to face-to-face interactions.”
By doing so, he can bolster the vision of his non-profit group. On one level, the discussions renew a dialogue on Lincoln’s legacy on the issue of racism. On another, “Of Tears and Iron” can revisit America’s troubled past, but lead to healing.
“This was a man who led so many, who knew the weight of his responsibility,” Allen said. “He carried it with him every step of the way. And what I appreciate now, more than ever, is the lessons his life continue to leave us, but only if we pay attention to it. It’s all there: the roadmap to sustaining our democracy is right there.”