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A hidden secret over a century ago, the Underground Railroad ran through Central Illinois

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In the early morning of Jan. 16, 1848, Albert Greene of the Mount Hope settlement in McLean County was celebrating his sixth birthday by battling a case of the measles. Feverish and restless, he thrashed and sweated his way into a semi-sleep when unusual activity in the house's kitchen jolted him fully awake. He heard hushed conversation and the shuffling of many feet, and he smelled coffee brewing and meat frying.

Greene was awakened to hear the sound of wheels outside his home's front door. He heard people passing back and forth between the house and the covered wagon that had pulled up. Then the wagon pulled away and the house was silent again.

The Greene family's early-morning visitors were escaped slaves, probably from Mississippi or Louisiana. His father, an abolitionist who had relocated to the Midwest from New England, had received word to expect two fugitives who would need transport to Tremont, the next "depot" on the Underground Railroad that ran through central Illinois.

According to John Ackerman, Tazewell County clerk and recorder of deeds, an estimated 800 slaves passed through Tazewell on their way to Canada between the late 1840s and the end of the Civil War. The main pathway of the Underground Railroad, a secretive network of citizen volunteers, entered Tazewell County near Delavan, passed through Tremont and Morton, and circumvented Washington en route to Metamora.

"The stations were approximately five miles apart, because that's about the best you could do in a horse and buggy on rural dirt roads while you were trying to hide individuals," Ackerman noted.

Uriah Crosby, one of Morton's first settlers and one of Tazewell County's "Freedom Train" conductors, made an exception to the five-mile interval between stations, Ackerman added. Because Washington was one of the county's largest municipalities, Crosby detoured around the community, which lengthened the journey to the next station — the home of George Kern near Metamora.

"(Washington) was also settled by individuals from Virginia, which happened to be more pro-slavery," Ackerman said.

Tazewell County Genealogical and Historical Society President Susan Rynerson said that Underground Railroad volunteers operated in rural areas because of the need for secrecy. In communities like Washington or Pekin, there was too little privacy and too much risk of encountering bounty hunters who had the law on their side and could operate in the open.

"In addition, the (Illinois River) was the superhighway of the day," Rynerson said. "It allowed bounty hunters to quickly grab a fugitive and head for St. Louis. Secrecy was key to success, so the best routes stayed out in the country."

Although Illinois was a free state, residents were prohibited from harboring or assisting runaway slaves. The minimum penalty for harboring runaways was a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. In 1847, two Freedom Train conductors — Kern of Metamora and Randolph Scott of Washington — were charged with harboring fugitives in Woodford County. Their defense attorney was no less a figure than future President Abraham Lincoln, arguing what is believed to be his last case on slavery.

"Lincoln sought a change of venue to Tazewell County, where he knew he would find a sympathetic jury, and the men were acquitted," Rynerson added.

TCGHS, the NAACP Peoria Branch, Morton Township government and the Tazewell County Clerk's Office will host a public recognition event at 4 p.m. March 9 at Hirstein Cemetery to honor Uriah Crosby on what would have been his 210th birthday. The ceremony will also honor Morton Freedom Train conductors Daniel, Darius, Walter, Ambrose and John Roberts. Ackerman said that further public recognition ceremonies are planned for this summer and fall, and in the spring of 2022.

"The purpose of this series of public recognition events is to properly recognize the work of these individuals, bring public awareness to the existence of the nationally celebrated Underground Railroad here in Tazewell County, and most importantly to add a permanent marker at the gravesites of these individuals for future generations indicating their involvement as Underground Railroad coordinators," he added.

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