DuPage County's Routes to Freedom

by Glennette Tilley Turner
The Conservationist, Winter 2002

Most accounts of the Underground Railroad tell of people, places and events in the northeastern part of the United States. Only in recent years has it become generally known that the Underground Railroad operated as far west as Illinois. In fact, back in the mid-1800s, many routes of the legendary Underground Railroad merged in DuPage County. Several of these routes followed rivers that flow or roads that pass through areas that are now part of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

During the period between 1835 and 1861, when the Underground Railroad was at s peak, the newness and speed of actual railroads had captured the imagination of the public. Underground Railroad workers gave double, coded meanings to railroad terminology. Freedom seekers were called “passengers,” and antislavery workers who provided passengers were called “station operators.” On occasion, Underground Railroad passengers traveled on the real railroads now known as the Union Pacific Railroad and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

Most travelers on the Illinois Underground Railroad had been enslaved in Missouri. At the opportune moment, they escaped and began their perilous journey to freedom. They endured inclement weather, evaded bloodhounds, survived on edible plants and crossed the might Mississippi River before reaching Illinois. Once in Illinois, there was a possibility that Underground Railroad workers in town such as Quincy, Chester, Alton and Rock Island would help them set out on the Illinois routes. Chicago was the terminus of most of these routes, and DuPage County was at the crossroads of quite a few river, rail and overland routes. The east and west branches of the DuPage River were important natural pathways. Tall grasses shielded passengers from the view of the bounty hunters. Farm wagons, stagecoaches and Underground Railroad passengers traveling on foot followed highways and byways we still use today.

There was quite a lot of antislavery sentiment in DuPage County. Early settlers in Wheaton, Glen Ellyn, Glendale Heights, Wayne Center, Warrenville, West Chicago, Lombard, Naperville, Downers Grove, Hinsdale, Lyons and present-day Oak Brook were actively involved in Underground Railroad activities. Although the Underground Railroad operated before and during the Civil War, there are places in DuPage forest preserves that still show evidence of this rich heritage. Two such places are the Graue Mill and Museum in Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve in Oak Brook and a location on the West Branch of the DuPage River in Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville.

The Graue Mill was, in addition to being a gristmill, an Underground Railroad station. Frederick Graue operated his milling business on the first floor of the mill and stored sacks of grain on the upper floors. Most of his customers only thought of him as a miller. Few knew that in the basement of the mill, Graue was providing a safe haven for Underground Railroad passengers who were on a journey to freedom. The passengers who reached the mill did so in various ways. They may have been transported there by Hinsdale blacksmith John Coe, hidden under tarpaulins in the back of his wagon, or by a farmer who knew of and shared Gtaue’s abolitionist views. Or they might have walked through the undergrowth along Ogden Avenue, known then as the Southwest Plank Road, and then gone a short distance north of the busy Castle Inn stagecoach stop at the intersection of Ogden Avenue and York Road.

Today, visitors to the mill can see the basement area that once served as a refuge and hear the history that happened there. The mill is also noted for being the only operating waterwheel gristmill in the state of Illinois and is open to the public from April to November.

In Blackwell Forest Preserve south of Mack Road and east of Route 59, there is an unusual arrangement of huge stones in the West Branch of the DuPage River. The arrangement appears to be man-made rather than a natural formation, yet the stones are spaced too far apart to have been put there as stepping stones by anyone crossing the river. There has been much speculation about the arrangement of the stones. Upon seeing the stones and their placement, local historian Horace “Ace” Hardy concluded that their purpose was to form an arrow that would let Underground Railroad passengers know the whereabouts of a nearby station.

From this point, Underground Railroad passengers had two options. They could continue to follow the West Branch northward or head east along what is now Roosevelt Road. Passengers who continued to follow the river would have reached Wayne Center where they might have found refuge in the home of Dr. and Mrs. E. C. Guild. The next stop on this route was in Ontarioville, now known as Hanover Park. From there, travelers might go still further north and perhaps find a place to settle down once they reached a location where bounty hunters were unlikely to find them. (Former slaves had skills with which to earn a living. Many had experience as farmers and blacksmiths, as they had done that work, without pay, in bondage.)

A passenger who left the river took the overland route toward Chicago would have traveled through West Chicago-Gary’s Mill, Wheaton, Glen Ellyn and Lombard. John Fairbanks, Charles Gary, John Cross, Thomas Filer and Sheldon Peck are believed to have been Underground Railroad station operators in these towns. Although there are details of the Underground Railroad that may never be fully understood, the local links in the DuPage County forest preserves are important connections with that significant chapter in American history.

About the author: Glennette Tilley Turner has written several books and articles about the Underground Railroad and served as a member of the Graue Mill and Museum Board of Directors.

This drawing, which appeared in an 1874 Atlas & History of DuPage County, illustrates Graue Mill's appearance around the time that it served as an Underground Railroad station. Drawing courtesy of the DuPage County Historical Society

The Graue Mill and Museum, which today remains a link to an important chapter in American history, is open to the public April through November. 
This hand-painted plaque, which hangs on a cellar wall at the mill, explains the building's significance as a stop along the Underground Railroad.
Visitors to the Graue Mill and Museum not only learn about Frederick Graue's gristmill but also his involvement with the Underground Railroad.
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