Path to Freedom on Illinois’ Underground Railroad

Visit the secret places slaves stayed in Illinois while fleeing the South.

After the Civil War, slaves heading north toward freedom began trickling into Illinois. Even though Illinois was a free state, it was far from being a safe or welcoming place for slaves. The state’s Black Laws denied African Americans most fundamental freedoms (gathering in groups, voting, bearing arms, etc.), and the Fugitive Slave Act required residents to return runaway slaves to their owners. Slave catchers roamed many areas, hoping to capture slaves and return them to their owners for a reward.

This meant slaves had to travel through Illinois discretely, usually under the cover of darkness. They would go from safe house to safe house—a path to freedom that came to be known as the Underground Railroad.

From Grafton to Galesburg to suburban Chicago, visitors can see the homes (maintained in their 19th-century style) and hear stories about this historic time in history.

Princeton

Many of Illinois’ Underground Railroad homes were owned by abolitionists and were located near rivers. One of the most famous is the Owen Lovejoy Homestead, a National Historic Landmark in Princeton. It’s named for the abolitionist preacher whose older brother, Elijah, was murdered in 1837 by a pro-slavery mob because of opinion pieces he published in the newspaper. Lovejoy moved to Princeton and became a proponent for ending slavery, helping hide slaves in his home. Tours of his 1850s home show the hidden entryways to the cramped, tucked away places.

Quincy

The first stop for several hundred slaves on this side of the Mississippi River was at Dr. Richard Eell’s House in downtown Quincy. Slaves who crossed the border from Missouri would hide out in this two-story early-1800s home.

Jacksonville

There’s a nine-stop tour of Underground Railroad locations around town on Saturdays and Sundays, showing spots where hundreds of slaves hid, including Beecher Hall and Woodlawn Farm. Visit the new Underground Railroad Museum on the third floor of the town’s Congregational United Church of Christ.

Alton

This Underground Railroad town along the Mississippi River offers in-depth tours. Underground Railroad expert J.E. Robinson has been doing walking or driving tours in this area by appointment since 1995, telling human stories so people can understand the environment slaves were living in, and feel the fear they had of getting caught.

The Alton Underground Railroad tour includes a visit to the Enos Apartments, where underground tunnels that resemble Roman catacombs exist 15 feet below 3rd Street. It also stops at Rocky Fork Church, one of the first stops for slaves escaping Missouri. Some tours go out to the Cheney Mansion, in Jerseyville, which had a basement cellar that served as a “station.”

During this year’s Alton tours, Robinson will focus on a woman named Gertrude Barnaby, who traveled from St. Louis through Illinois on her way to Canada in 1853. “This is not about people who were victims, but people who fought,” says Robinson.

Oakland

Eastern Illinois had a safe haven for slaves in Oakland, at the home of Dr. Hiram Rutherford, a good friend of Abraham Lincoln’s. Rutherford was involved with the famous Matson Slave Trial in 1847, where it was debated whether slaves living in the area were free. The judge ruled in favor of the slaves, and a black community eventually formed there. 

Suburban Chicago

Slaves that made it to northern Illinois stopped at dozens of Underground Railroad sites in Chicago’s western suburbs. Wheaton College’s Blanchard Hall housed slaves in underground tunnels. The tunnels are no longer there, but the college does have a permanent exhibit about it on the building’s first floor.

There’s more to see at Graue Mill and Museum in Oak Brook, a property on the National Register of Historic Places. The mill’s owner, Frederick Graue, housed slaves in the basement of his gristmill on Salt Creek. Both black and white abolitionists would bring the slaves food here. Tours of the property are offered, and visitors can stop in the museum which has photographs, documents and interactive displays that tell the property’s “station” history.

The Lombard Historical Society gives tours of the Sheldon Peck Homestead on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. An artist and radical abolitionist, Sheldon Peck’s home was used as a headquarters for all opponents of slavery. He risked fines and imprisonment by letting slaves stay on his property. A new documentary about Peck was just released, and an exhibit of his portraits is planned in the summer of 2019.

The National Park Service is continuing to work to preserve some of these Underground Railroad sites across Illinois, as well as improve their educational efforts.

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