Remembering old haunts in Alton, Illinois

The tunnel in the basement of our home in Illinois: Part of the underground railway
Our home (the townhouse on the right) in Alton, Illinois


When Amy and I married in Alton, Illinois in the 1970s, we moved into a historic town house perched high on a hill in the Mississippi River city.  The home, attached to an apartment house that was once a sanatorium, had a rich history along with a local legend that it was haunted.

More importantly, the home sat atop a tunnel that was part of the underground railroad that provided a path to freedom for slaves trying to escape oppression.

Recently, I came across a New York Times story about our former home.  Wrote John Eligon on May 13, 2010:

Perched on a hill in this southern Illinois town is an inviting red-brick building, its windows framed by ornate wood trimming. It is hard to believe that such a serene setting was once a portal to freedom for fleeing slaves.

But imagine that it is the mid-1800s, and that you are a slave who has just crossed the Mississippi River from the major slave port of St. Louis. The basement of the four-story building, once a sanatorium and now the Enos Apartments, would have been among your escape routes. Historians say it was part of the Underground Railroad; a tunnel in the basement was a coal shed where escaped slaves hid.

As a transplanted Southerner who lived in Alton for nearly 12 years and reported for the local newspaper I found the city’s history both fascinating and disturbing.  Alton was the town where a pro-slavery mob attacked the newspaper owned by abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy, dumped his printing press into the Mississippi River and killed him.  It was also the city where James Earl Ray — the man who killed Martin Luther King — was born and learned to hate those of a different color.

It seems issues involving racism have always been part of my life.  My father died in an industrial accident when I was nine months old.  Seven years later my mother remarried and we moved to Farmville, VA, the Prince Edward County community that closed its public schools rather than comply with a federal court order to integrate.  The first story I wrote for a newspaper detailed my impressions as a young man growing up in a community dominated by racists.  I was 10.

In Alton, I often wrote about racism and both Amy and I found it gratifying that our home once played a prominent role in the fight against slavery and that I worked for The Alton Telegraph, a newspaper where a piece of Elijah Lovejoy’s old printing press sat in the lobby.

We also found it both exciting and unsettling that our home had a reputation as a haunted house, a place where dishes rattled, apparitions appeared, faucets mysterious turned on and off and strange things happened.

Wrote The New York Times in 2010:

Enos residents have reported hearing silverware drawers rattle and leaving full glasses in the kitchen that mysteriously end up empty.

The Enos basement has not been done up for tourists. Its uneven cement floor and brick walls are chalked with dust; rusty pipes are exposed; and old furniture is strewn about. Deep inside the dim space, a narrow, rectangular doorway is cut in the red brick. Through it is a dead-end tunnel — a low brick arch with penitentiary stone forming the side walls. Fitting more than 20 people at a time would be a tight squeeze.

I didn’t believe in ghosts before moving into that town house.

I do now.

The tunnel in the basement: Part of the historic underground railroad


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