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The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad (UGRR) is a general term used to describe the secretive means of helping fugitive slaves escape bondage in the United States before the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. Abolitionists and UGRR operators were engaged in the first integrated social movement in American history.

Underground Railroad activists borrowed the terminology of real railroads: passengers, cargo, agents, stations, and conductors. These agents, both black and white, aided freedom seekers by providing shelter, food, clothing, and valuable information about the areas they were passing through. These operators also gave fugitives directions to other safe locations and carried them 

in wagons, buggies, and occasionally, on horseback. Sleighs were sometimes used in the winter. This loosely organized network of conductors might also direct those fleeing to waterways on which freedom seekers could move on boats, barges, and skiffs. I n addition, however, some escapees were put on real railroad cars -- both box cars and even passenger cars -- that allowed fugitives to gain freedom much faster. Famous abolitionist and Underground Railroad agent Frederick Douglass, for instance, escaped by riding on a train.

In many parts of the United States, the UGRR and real railroads developed more or less simultaneously, but railroad construction unfolded slowly for a variety of reasons in Illinois. However, during the 1850s, hundreds of miles of railroad track were laid across the state. During this time, escaping slaves started to travel northward by rail towards Lake Michigan. Emma Chapin, the daughter of nationally known anti-slavery advocate William T. Allen, recalled that, “after the railroad was built in 1855, he (a fugitive) was smuggled on a train when it stopped at a water tank.” E. E. Calkins, in his book They Broke the Prairie, wrote that “The Q line…offered a new means of transportation, and companies of Negroes were sent in freight cars.” Galesburg’s William Patch, who worked for the C.B.&Q. line, once helped two fugitives board a train heading north. Galesburg, Illinois, was known as an anchor of the anti-slavery movement in the middle west.

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One of the most active Underground Railroad agents in Chicago was Dr. C. V. Dyer who was well connected to early railroad building in Illinois. In 1850, Dyer was identified in a Chicago Tribune article as the “presiding officer” of a meeting of men during the first excursion out of Chicago on the Aurora Branch Railroad. In 1854, Princeton abolitionist John Bryant used the “Q” tracks to send 15 fugitives northward. These escapees, according to Bryant, were sent in broad daylight to Dr. Dyer in Chicago. The Illinois Central Railroad, which ran from Cairo at the southern tip of Illinois to Chicago, was also used as an escape route for freedom seekers.

Illinois’ most active Underground Railroad operations occurred in the western part of the state, from Quincy through Galesburg and Princeton, and on to Chicago. There were, of course, scores of hiding places in small towns, hamlets, and farms throughout Western Illinois, but the so-called “Q Line” heading northeast towards Chicago was particularly well traveled. The old C.B.&Q. railroad was built through the heart of this region of the Prairie State.

Owen W. Muelder, Director

Galesburg Colony Underground Railroad Freedom Center at Knox College


The Batavia Historian, Volume 45, No. 34, October 2004.

Bradsby, H.C. History of Bureau County, Illinois. Chicago: World Publishing, 1885.


Calkins, Ernest Elmo. They Broke the Prairie. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1937.


Muelder, Owen W. The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.


Seibert, Wilbur H. The Mysteries of Ohio’s Underground Railroad. Columbus, Ohio: Long’s College Book Company, 1951.


Turner, Glennette. The Underground Railroad in Illinois. Glen Ellyn, Ill.: Newman Educational Publishing, 2001.

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