The funeral train that carried President Lincoln’s body in 1865 was seen by millions who came to watch it’s two-week journey through northern states. But today nobody knows what color the rail car was.

This might seem like an extremely trivial matter until you try to reenact the train trip at the 150th anniversary of the Great Emancipator’s death — which is right around the corner in 2015.

Now a chemist and researchers at the University of Arizona, using the last aging chip of wood that remains of the train car, have worked out the original color. Here’s how it happened:

Wayne Wesolowski is a chemist and model train maker who, for 10 years, was the director of the Lincoln Train Project at Benedictine University near Chicago. In 1995, he completed a 15-foot scale model of Lincoln’s funeral train, including the locomotive and hearse and horses. Now retired in Arizona, Wesolowski still teaches as a chemistry lecturer ay the University of Arizona.

Wesolowski with his model of the rail car that carried the body of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. (Courtesy of Benedictine University Library)

Then, flash from the past, the Lincoln Funeral Car Project, from back in Chicago, found Wesolowski and asked for his help to build a full-size version of Lincoln’s funeral car, in hopes of following the same funeral route as in 1865 — as close as possible anyway.  Suddenly the trivial matter of the color of the train became not-so-trivial.

There are black and white photos, but nothing in color — not even a painting of the funeral car, which was named only “The United States.” Newspapers at the time described the car as “rich chocolate brown” and “claret red,” which seems a bit confusing until you realize that in 1865 chocolate was just a drink and so did not have the same hue as a bar of chocolate bar today.

They could not go and simply look at the old rail car either, because it was consumed by a fire in 1911, after being auctioned off and passing through a number of private hands. All that remained of the car was a pencil-sized but of trim wood, which took Wesolowski years to locate.

Once in hand, however, modern science could come to the rescue. No less than three  labs were called into the project, including the University of Arizona’s Keck Imaging Center, Jack Sinclair Letterpress Studio and the Arizona State Museum.

By comparing microscopic layers of paint on the small artifact to national color standards, the true color was finally sorted out. It was a dark maroon, a tad darker than the color Wesolowski used on his scale model.

Now if, by any chance, you are still skeptical about the importance of getting the color right, consider the history:

It’s estimated that fully one-third of the Northern population came in person to see the procession, which left Washington on April 21, 1865, and retraced the route Lincoln had traveled as president-elect in 1861 — bypassing cities with too many Southern sympathizers. People lined the tracks to see the train pass, as they did for the funeral train of Robert Kennedy. In New York and Chicago more than a half-million people attended.

“It was a procession of mourning and without TV or radio, the only way to participate was to leave the farm, close the store and come trackside,” Wesolowski said in a University of Arizona press release. “Just being there was so important. It was a colossal event. It was a political event. It was a social event. It was a catharsis. The man who said in victory, ‘Malice toward none,’ was dead. There is now a chance to re-create a little of that history.”

Top photo: President Lincoln’s funeral car at Alexandria, Virginia. Credit: Library of Congress