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posted: 1/1/2016 5:30 AM

Suburbs home to Underground Railroad landmarks

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  • The Mother Rudd Home in Gurnee sheltered slaves escaping to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

      The Mother Rudd Home in Gurnee sheltered slaves escaping to freedom via the Underground Railroad.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer, 2006

 
 

During the 19th century, abolitionists throughout the North organized to aid runaway slaves. Working in small, independent groups to maintain secrecy and using rail terminology, they established an informal network of routes and safe houses much like an underground resistance movement. It would become known as the Underground Railroad, and helped thousands of escaped slaves make their way to free states or Canada.

Along the way, some of those former slaves, and the people who aided them, made their homes in the suburbs. Here's a sampling of notable suburban locations in the Underground Railroad movement.

Elgin History Museum

The Downs family in the Settlement neighborhood in Elgin, circa 1890. The city's role in settling former slaves during the Civil War is noted in a documentary film and in an exhibit at the Elgin History Museum.
The Downs family in the Settlement neighborhood in Elgin, circa 1890. The city's role in settling former slaves during the Civil War is noted in a documentary film and in an exhibit at the Elgin History Museum. - Courtesy of Elgin History Museum

Slaves displaced from southern states by incoming Union armies were known as contraband. In 1862, two boxcars of contraband women, children and the elderly were moved to Elgin. These 110 individuals were welcomed to town and got help finding jobs and homes. Their story is part of the museum's "River to Rails: Elgin 1835-1910" exhibit.

It also is highlighted in "Project 2-3-1: A Story of Elgin's African American Heritage," a full-length documentary and exhibit. From Jan. 26 to Feb. 23, it is scheduled to be in the Max Von Isser Gallery at Elgin Community College, with a public viewing and conversation about the documentary scheduled for Feb. 9. Part of that traveling exhibit will be incorporated into the museum's permanent offerings.

360 Park St., Elgin. (847) 742-4248, elginhistory.org/ Email museum@elginhistory.org.

Graue Mill and Museum

Graue Mill on York Road in Oak Brook.
Graue Mill on York Road in Oak Brook. - Daily Herald file Photo

In the 1800s, several DuPage County communities -- among them Wheaton, Glen Ellyn, Glendale Heights, Wayne Center, Warrenville, West Chicago, Lombard, Naperville, and Oak Brook -- had stops on the Underground Railroad, according to museum history. Frederick Graue housed escaped slaves in the basement of his grist mill on Salt Creek.

The museum's "Graue Mill and the Road to Freedom" exhibit uses photographs, documents, a computer interactive system and additional displays to illustrate the issue of slavery, the Underground Railroad and the importance of Graue Mill and DuPage County in assisting fugitive slaves' escape to freedom.

Special group tours of the Underground Railroad exhibit can be arranged by calling (630) 655-2090 or (630) 920-9720. 3800 York Road, Oak Brook. Reopens April 19, 2016. grauemill.org.

Mother Rudd House

The cellar at the Mother Rudd Home in Gurnee could have been used by slaves escaping to freedom via the Underground Railroad.
  The cellar at the Mother Rudd Home in Gurnee could have been used by slaves escaping to freedom via the Underground Railroad. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer, 2006

Artifacts from the Gurnee and Warren Township area are displayed in two rooms of the home built in 1844 as a stage coach stop. A barn foundation behind the house is believed to have been a station for the Underground Railroad. Plaques in the garden tell the story. Displays inside include historic photographs of Gurnee. The facility is owned by the village and operated by the Warren Township Historical Society.

4690 Old Grand Ave., Gurnee. (847) 263-9540. motherrudd.org gurnee.il.us/history/rudd. Email info@motherrudd.org.

Sheldon Peck Homestead

The Peck Homestead in Lombard.
The Peck Homestead in Lombard. - Daily Herald file Photo

The oldest house in Lombard was built in 1839 by Sheldon Peck, a nationally recognized primitive folk-art painter and well-known advocate of anti-slavery causes. He also operated his business there and it was the site of the first public school in the area. In 2011, the homestead was inducted into the Network to Freedom, a list of verified Underground Railroad locations. Staff and volunteers worked over several years researching the Underground Railroad, genealogy and property lines near the Homestead, and Sheldon Peck's art.

It is open as a museum from 1 to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, and by appointment. Tours of the house and educational programs are available. 355 Parkside Ave., Lombard. (630) 629-1885. lombardhistory.org/peck.htm or villageoflombard.org/216/Sheldon-Peck-Homestead.

Blanchard Hall

Built for the Wesleyan Methodist's Illinois Institute in 1853, it served as the main college building for all activities and instruction, as well as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Institute was first led by abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor the Rev. John Cross. After years of financial struggle, fellow abolitionist the Rev. Jonathan Blanchard, a conductor on the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati and western Illinois, took over.

Wheaton College, 501 College Ave., Wheaton. wheaton.edu/About-Wheaton/Map/Buildings/Blanchard-Hall.

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