The Underground Railroad
Prior to the Civil War, many slaves dreamed of freedom. Luckily, there were options for these slaves. Some of them were freed by a kind master, and some were able to raise enough money to buy their freedom. However, these cases were few compared to the large number of people who remained slaves. There was only one other option for the majority of slaves. This was to escape, and the Underground Railroad was there to help them.
Most people associate the Underground Railroad with the Civil War. But slaves had pursued their freedom for years before the war. For many of those slaves, the "free" state of Illinois seemed to be a logical destination.
The Underground Railroad was a scattered system of homes, barns, churches, and other structures where people were willing to risk their own lives to hide the runaway slaves. This system spanned the country, from slave states in the South to the free states in the North and eventually into Canada.
Many of the passengers on this so-called railroad traveled through southern Illinois where they stopped at many safe locations, called "stations," along the way. The runaway slave might have stopped in Belleville, Sparta, Chester, and other communities in southern Illinois. However, in this region much of this activity centered around the Alton area and Illinoistown, now present-day East St. Louis.
Runaway slaves dreamed of stopping at Illinoistown, despite the danger of recapture in nearby Missouri, a slave state. While waiting at the various stations to move further north, the slaves exchanged stories of their journeys.
From Illinoistown, slaves were led up the Mississippi River to Alton, where tunnels under the city led them safely to homes of "conductors," or people
who housed runaway slaves. Most likely, the fugitives traveled at night by carriage or on foot. It was said that a slave could set one foot on the river's edge at Alton and then later emerge above-ground in Brighton.
One station in Alton was a building two blocks from the river, which made it an easy access for slaves. The building, now the Enos Apartments, also contained tunnels that ran between the floor and the walls. Two more houses, the Brown House and the Palmer House, in nearby Brighton, were joint stations. Dr. Brown hung a lantern on his property located on the corner of what are now Brown and School streets. This lantern informed people at the Palmer House, which is in view of the Brown house, that it was safe to bring slaves through the streets between the houses. The Issac Kelly residence was also a popular stop in Alton.
Alton and Illinoistown were not the only stops on the Underground Railroad in the region. The A. A. Burlingame house in Sparta, in Randolph County, remains a testament to the activities of dedicated conductors. Burlingame, a wagon, pump and plywood maker, hid slaves in his wagon when he went on business trips. A landing called Liberty, now Rockwood, was a favored passage across the Mississippi River because the river narrowed at this spot. James Clendin hid fugitives in a cave on his farm near Chester, also in Randolph County, before passing them on to another safe site. Just south of the town of Tamaroa, in Perry County, stands a massive twelve-room mansion built by B. G. Roots. Roots hid slaves in many different places on the property. Secret passages inside the walls also led to upstairs quarters that held the runaway slaves.
Even though most slaves were hidden in houses, some were kept in smaller and less convenient places. A well-hidden cabin in the woods just south of Jerseyville, in Jersey County, was not only a clubhouse for many children but was also a stop on the Underground Railroad. Built by Josiah White in 1828, this rundown cabin hid slaves in the ratters under the tin roof. This cabin was less risky than the houses in the more populated city of Alton. Another unusual stop was Rocky Farm in Jersey County, where a tree stood in an empty field. This tree, called the "Message Tree," had the names of local safe sites in the area carved into its trunk.
Churches were also very involved in the Underground Railroad. The Bethel Baptist Church, located north of present-day O'Fallon in St. Clair County was an important station. In the south aisle of Bethel Church was an opening in the floor where slaves were taken under the building and cared for until they could be safely taken to the next station. Many of the church members also aided the slaves. They sometimes hid runaway slaves under straw in the bed of a wagon. These wagons also carried articles being hauled to a town or place on the route. At each station, members of the church fed the slaves. During the day, the runaways were hidden and allowed to rest. The church, built in 1840, was recently torn down.
The Underground Railroad may not have been composed of the grandest and the most expensive homes, but to runaway slaves, anything that meant freedom was beautiful. "There was an old barn on my father's farm," said John Smith. "It was almost a ruin. One end of the roof had fallen in, pretty much all the windows were gone, and there was a general air of dilapidation about the place . . . The old barn was a regular station on the Underground Railroad and the fugitives looked at the barn as if there was magic inside." Indeed, there was magic in the stations and the conductors on this railroad to freedom.—[From Grover Brinkman, "Refurnishing Historic Mansion, " Belleville News Democrat, Mar. 28, 1966; Churches of St. Clair County; Maureen Houston, "Underground Railroad Tour," Belleville News Democrat, Oct. 2, 1995; John F. Hume, The Abolitionists; Illinois Generations: A Traveler's Guide to African American Heritage.]