The busiest time of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) was between the years l840 and 1860. Untold thousands of slaves were ushered between “stations” on this most secret of roads.
The main points of entry into Illinois were Chester, Alton and Quincy. It is believed that five separate lines started at Quincy, which had one of the largest organized cells of the Underground Railroad in the entire state.
For Fayette County, proof of the Underground Railroad has been a little long in coming.
Various groups, including the Vandalia Baptist Association, a child of the anti-slave, Friends To Humanity, was active in Vandalia in the 1840s and their presence here points to Underground Railroad activity.
Wilbur H. Siebert, in his book, ‘The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom,’ published in 1898, stated, “The Presbyterian church became the center of opposition of slavery, and fugitives finding their way into the vicinity of any one of them were likely to receive help.”
It is a known fact that most of the agents and conductors of the Underground Railroad were free blacks. An early census of Vandalia lists five families of free blacks living on Gallatin Street, and it is probable that they were among those who assisted Southern slaves northward.
Bond County’s UGRR’s participation began as early as 1819, and their history is awash with names of conductors, the routes taken and the location of safe houses, while Fayette County has no such specifics.
To Paul Stroble goes the credit for uncovering the first positive proof of Vandalia’s Underground Railroad activity. In his research, he located a complaint against Jonathan Ward for harboring two runaways, Peter and Cherry.
Jonathan Ward was a free black resident of Vandalia. He lived on South Seventh Street, according to the 1870 census record, and earlier censuses place him in the same area. Where did Jonathan receive his ‘cargo’ from? And where was their next stop? Those are two questions we may never know the answers to.
One possibility is the Illinois Central Railroad, which passed a short distance from Jonathan’s door. George L. Burroughs of Centralia, and a porter of a sleeping car on the line, helped untold numbers in their bid for freedom. Vandalia is on the main trunk line from Cairo to Chicago, and Jonathan could have received or sent his charges northward by rail.
The old McKinley School has long been rumored as a stop for years. It was built by George Leidig before he left for the California gold fields in 1849, and he conducted his general store in this building. Half of the structure was brick, the other half frame.
Recently, I learned from Audrey Probst of Fillmore that the Honorable Leonard Rush, who lived in Shafter Township, was known to have helped runaway slaves. His home was in the southwest quarter of Section 8, not far from the Shelbyville to Greenville Road.
John Roye, who kept a grog house in the capital city in the early 1820s, also worked on the Underground Railroad, first in Terre Haute, where he supported one of the first schools for black children. Roye moved to Vandalia and died here in December 1829. He left his estate to his son, Edward Roye, who later moved to Liberia and became that nation’s seventh president.
Joseph Burtschi, former Vandalia mayor and historian, told his daughter, Mary, that tunnels under the old Vandalia Inn, a capitol-era building that stood where the drive-up windows of the former First Bank were located, were used to conceal runaways.
Secrecy surrounding the operation of the Underground Railroad protected the operators of the railway, and it is this secrecy that makes research into the efforts of those involved difficult. Theirs was an illegal activity, punishable by imprisonment and hefty fines.
Proof of Vandalia’s Underground Railroad connection was a long time in coming, and there is more still to be learned about local activity on this most secret of roads.