Alton Museum of History and Art, Alton, Illinois

Underground Railroad

Alton was...

Founded by Rufus Easton, a  St. Louis land speculator. Alton was named after his oldest son. When  he laid out the area, Easton named five of the major streets after his  children (Alby, Alton, George, Henry, and Langdon).

Originally, located on the  central hill. To its west was North Alton and to its east Upper Alton;  these communities were absorbed into Alton by World War I.

One of the fastest growing  municipalities in early Illinois. Under the first state constitution,  a three-step process of incorporation existed. A municipality incorporated  as a village, then as a town, then as a city as its population grew. Alton  finished the incorporation process in 1837.

A major riverport. Thanks to  the steep hills and their commanding view of the Mississippi, and Alton's  location just below the Illinois, Alton controlled the river traffic very  much the same way an air-traffic controller commands regional traffic  at O'Hare or LaGuardia airports. Thanks to one of its leading citizens,  Benjamin Godfrey, Alton also became an equally important railroad hub.

An important Underground Railroad  location. Within a seven- block radius in Upper Alton alone, there are  five documentable Underground Railroad stations; most are private homes.  The Ursuline Sisters, the AME churches, and some of the American Baptist  churches are among the groups involved in assisting escaping slaves.

A major Alton developer, Charles  Hunter, was one of Alton's best known Underground Railroad conductors.  His Hunterstown area, founded in the 1830's, had many free Blacks as residents,  some of whom were escaped slaves. He  was also the only landowner who allowed Elijah Lovejoy to live on his  property.

The site of an Underground  Railroad network running the length of the Mississippi that was conducted  by free Blacks. One conductor, James P. Thomas, lived on Belle Street,  the site of the current Post Office. Another, Isaac Kelly, lived near  Sixth and George streets; his cabin, built over and forgotten, has been  excavated and transferred intact to a farm in rural Grafton, about twelve  miles upstream. For this network, the sign was Jocko the jockey (cf.,  Moses Dixon, "Signs and Landmarks [of the Underground Railroad]," c. 1879).

Populated by free Blacks as  early as the 1820's. Alton's Union Baptist Church and Campbell Chapel  AME Church are among the oldest Black churches in Illinois. John Livingstone,  Union Baptist's founding pastor, was Elijah Lovejoy's pressman in 1837;  one of Campbell Chapel's organizers, Priscilla Baltimore, was reportedly  Alton's Harriet Tubman. Most free Blacks worked in the river trade or  at the brick works.

In the 1830's, escaping slaves  were being absorbed by the free Black communities around Alton: Hunterstown,  Rocky Fork, and Wood Station. Rocky Fork and Wood Station were rural areas;  their farms stayed in the families for over one hundred years in most  cases. One of those is Ralph Bunche's mother's family, the Johnsons. The  Johnson family farm, founded in the 1840's, is the oldest family farm  in Illinois. See Brian Urquhart, Ralph Bunche: An American Life, 1995.

The man who buried Elijah Lovejoy,  William "Scotts" or "Scotch" Johnston, was a free Black stonecutter who did the work on St. Louis' Old Cathedral. When Lovejoy was reinterred  in 1864, Johnston was the only one who knew where he lay.

After Lovejoy's reinterrment,  Thomas Dimmock, an editor who had donated the plot for Lovejoy's burial,  designated Isaac Kelly trustee of the Lovejoy gravesite and charged Black  Alton to keep Lovejoy's memory alive. Since 1864, a memorial service has  been held on November 9th at noon in Lovejoy's honour; since the early  1950's, these services have been done by the Elijah P. Lovejoy Memorial.


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