The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad did not rely on steel rails and steam engines to transport goods. Instead, it was a vast network of brave individuals — both black and white — dedicated to delivering men, women, and children from a life of slavery in the South to freedom in the North.
The county’s first anti-slavery society was formed in Lofton’s Prairie, near Otterville in 1830.
Unfortunately, Jersey County was an “island” of slave sympathizers. Missouri to the west was a slave state, with St. Louis being one of the largest slave markets north of New Orleans. Calhoun and Greene counties to the north and Macoupin County to the east, although located in a free state, were largely unsympathetic to the plight of slaves. Madison County to the south included many anti-slavery proponents and multiple Underground Railroad stations, but tensions ran high, and abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was murdered in Alton in 1837 by a pro-slavery mob.
Aiding runaway slaves was risky. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it a federal offense to aid runaway slaves. Offenders could be fined $1,000 and jailed for six months. Furthermore, slave hunters and local authorities had the right to issue warrants to “remove” any blacks suspected of being runaway slaves — and they could accuse any black of being a runaway slave. A state law was enacted in Illinois prohibiting bringing “colored persons” into the state for any reason.
Underground railroad stations existed in Otterville and Jerseyville. One such “station” can still be viewed today in the Cheney Mansion.
The station was a small underground room located beneath the mansion. A tunnel, discovered in the 1950s when State Street was being repaired, connected the room to a stable across the road. A trapdoor in the dining room allowed food and water to be lowered to those hiding below. The wall that once separated the basement from the underground room was removed by the Historical Society, so visitors can easily see the room.