A Lincoln Museum in Redlands –
Perhaps the most frequently asked question by visitors to the Lincoln Memorial Shrine is “Why is there a Lincoln museum in Redlands, California?” The answer lies in the remarkable life of part-time Redlands residents, Robert and Alma Watchorn.
Born into the working class of Alfreton, England in 1858, Robert Watchorn was forced by his family’s poverty to begin work in the region’s coal mines at the tender age of 11. Watchorn endured eighteen hour shifts in dangerous conditions for the meager wage of 27 cents a day. In 1880, Watchorn immigrated to America, where he found work in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. As a new American, Watchorn quickly became fascinated with the dramatic story of Abraham Lincoln, who had been martyred at the moment of his greatest triumph, just 15 years before. Watchorn saw in Lincoln the personification of the “American dream,” the ability to improve your circumstances if you are willing to study hard, work diligently, and apply yourself. Lincoln himself labeled this phenomenon “the right to rise.”
Like Lincoln, Watchorn knew education was the key to advancement. He organized a night school for miners and became involved in the early American labor movement, culminating with his election as the first secretary of the United Mine Workers union. His efforts caught the attention of Pennsylvania’s governor, Robert Pattison, who appointed him the Inspector of Factories and Mines in 1891. Among Watchorn’s achievements was successfully ending the scourge of child labor in the state.
Careers in Immigration and Oil
Governor Pattison was then able to secure Watchorn a position in the United States Immigration Service. In 1905, President Roosevelt appointed him Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island in New York City’s harbor. Watchorn worked to ease the burden of those awaiting processing into America. In 1909, newly elected president William Howard Taft dismissed Watchorn for his pro-immigration stance. Watchorn joined the Union Oil Company as its treasurer. His own wildcatting attempts proved highly successful and he amassed a fortune with the Watchorn Oil and Gas Company. When Watchorn acquired the financial resources, he began purchasing books, artifacts and manuscripts associated with Lincoln’s life and times. An admirer of the community of Redlands, he chose the town for his winter home. A highly devout man, Mr. Watchorn gave freely of his wealth: chimes for churches in Redlands, Los Angeles, and La Crescenta; housing and a park in his home town of Alfreton; and Watchorn Hall at the University of Redlands.
A Family and The Great War
Robert Watchorn married Alma Jessica Simpson in Ohio in 1891. Alma spent her childhood in Circleville, Ohio, where she graduated from Everts High School in 1878, and went on to teach in Circleville and Columbus. The couple had two sons, Robert Jr., who died at only 13 months of age, and Emory Ewart, who was born in New York City in 1895. Emory Ewart graduated from Hollywood High School in Hollywood, CA in 1913.
Robert shared his admiration for Lincoln with his only surviving child. A frequent visitor with his parents to Europe, Ewart was trapped in Germany for a brief period of time in 1914 when the conflict that would become known as the Great War broke out. Sharing his father’s affinity for Great Britain, the young Watchorn looked forward to American involvement in the war. In the summer of 1916, he completed officers’ training at Monterey, CA. When President Woodrow Wilson convinced Congress to declare war on Germany in April of 1917 “in order to make the world safe for democracy,” Ewart volunteered for the US Army Air Service. Robert and Alma joined the war effort at home actively supporting the United War Work Campaign, fundraising for the Red Cross, YMCA, various Liberty Loan bond drives, and the Armenia and Syrian Relief fund.
The Italian Front in World War I witnessed incredible suffering. After three years of bloody trench warfare with Germany and Austria, Italy was on the verge of suing for peace. Italy’s allies, Great Britain, France, and the United States, rushed in reinforcements to bolster Italian morale. Included among these reinforcements was a contingent of several hundred American pilot trainees, under the command of then congressman, later New York mayor, Fiorello La Guardia. Although her army was not enjoying much success, Italy’s strategic aviation was widely regarded as being the best in the world in 1917. In particular, the tri-motor Caproni biplane bomber was highly respected. The United States, by comparison, had no military aviation and despite expending millions of dollars, not a single American-produced aircraft would see service in the war. What America did have was tens of thousands of eager volunteers, including twenty-one year-old Ewart Watchorn.
After completing ground training at Berkeley, CA, he sailed aboard the SS Aquitania for Europe. Before entraining for his final destination in Italy, he was able to enjoy a ten-day leave in Paris. In a letter later published in the Los Angeles Times, he wrote, “Paris is like the smile on the face of the badly wounded.”
After months of flight training in Foggia, Lt. Watchorn received his gold Royal Italian Air Force wings in the summer of 1918 and was assigned to the 13th Aero Squadron. Based in Padua, Lt. Watchorn and his Italian comrades flew day and night bombing missions against Austrian airfields, railroad yards, and troop concentrations. On a night mission, Lt. Watchorn’s center engine was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He would receive a commendation for coolly executing a perfect emergency landing, saving his crew and the plane. The arduous flying conditions, open cockpits, and extreme cold took a toll on his health. Soon after Armistice Day, he contracted a severe case of pneumonia. He recovered, however, and returned to California in triumph. Two years later, a recurrence of his health problems developed into blood-poisoning. After a two month struggle, Ewart died at the age of 25 on July 10, 1921. Robert and Alma were devastated by the loss of their only surviving child and always felt that his death was a direct result of his service to his country.
Memorial for a Fallen Son
Seeking a way to memorialize their fallen son, the Watchorns eventually settled on the concept of building the Lincoln Memorial Shrine in their winter home of Redlands. That vision became reality in 1932, when the one-room octagonal building opened. In 1937, fountains and limestone walls bearing Lincoln quotations were added to the octagon. Over the following decades, an ever-increasing wealth of acquisitions required additional space. Thanks to the generosity of Lincoln and Civil War enthusiasts throughout Southern California, more than one million dollars was raised and in 1998, two beautiful wings were added to the original octagon.
It is a unique facility – the only such museum and archive west of the Mississippi River dedicated solely to the study of Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War. By placing the Shrine in their adopted home of Redlands, the Watchorns knew this monument of ideals would be available to the increasing number of people moving into Southern California. It was “accessible yet secluded,” Robert Watchorn said.
A Lasting Gift
Robert and Alma Watchorn desired that the Lincoln Memorial Shrine serve as a place where visitors would be inspired by the life and accomplishments of the man judged by many to be the greatest of all Americans. It is an institution that caters to visitors ranging from the average elementary school student to the nationally recognized historian. The great Lincoln scholar Jay Monaghan said, upon his visit to the Shrine in 1940, that “Lincoln is all things to all men.” Each of us approaches the memory of Lincoln in our own singular way. Lincoln is the “common property of each individual,” another biographer wrote. For the community of Redlands and for the greater region of Southern California, that “property” is a gift from Robert and Alma Watchorn.