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Secret tunnel, basement room may yield Underground Railroad history

The crawl space under the cellar stairs in Faith Tripp-Peloso's circa 1837 house in St. Charles always piqued her curiosity. “It was just a hole in the stone wall foundation, full of old siding and boards,” she said of the house that recently achieved historic landmark status. “Bit by bit, doing spring cleaning, we discovered some shelves buried there. But I did not know why someone would make the shelves so deep for canned goods. Why would the owners carve out a hole through the foundation of the house?” Peloso asked. They might have if there was a secret tunnel from an outside well leading to an underground hiding place for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. Peloso believes it - especially after she found a Civil War-era clay marble among other artifacts - while clearing dirt and debris away from the shelves. Then she traced the home's ownership back to Gideon Young, a member of the Kane County Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1842. She also found a succession of owners who were all connected to the abolitionist movement. Her house now is the subject of a forensic reconstruction scientist's research, not only to verify it as a stop on the Underground Railroad, but to trace who stopped there and where they went. Jihad Muhammad, president of the African Scientific Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, will present his plans for an archeological exploration of 606 Cedar St., at the St. Charles Historic Preservation Commission on Wednesday at the St. Charles City Hall. If the house is verified as a stop on the Underground Railroad, it would be among others in St. Charles, including the Beith House, 8 Indidana St., James T. Wheeler House/Wildrose Inn, 4N292 Route 31, and the Thomas Collins House, 201 E. Cedar Ave., according to a St. Charles Heritage Center report. Muhammad said researchers already knew there was Underground Railroad activity in the area. “What we are trying to do is make sure if that property were used as shelter for escaping fugitive African people,” Muhammad said. “Then it would be a tremendous link into missing history. Our job is to put those pieces of the puzzle together and try to make some sense of the movement of the Underground Railroad in a holistic way - rather than in fragmented pieces. It would be a tremendous find.” Muhammad said his team used ground-penetrating radar to seek out burial sites and artifacts. The first step for Peloso's house would be an archeological study of the outside property, starting this summer. Another aspect of the historical research would focus on the house's ownership history, he said. Muhammad came to the project by a combination of happenstance and serendipity: While Peloso was pondering the mysterious basement room, Marian Boveri, a St. Charles real estate agent who specializes in sales of historic homes, came knocking to introduce herself. A year later, when Peloso considered selling her house, she shared her suspicions about the basement room and the hidden well under the deck. Boveri then met Muhammad at a class in historic preservation and told him about the Peloso's house. Peloso has put the sale on hold while Muhammad's team does its research. “It is very exciting,” Peloso said. “I'm glad it (the basement) was virtually untouched all these years. I always knew it was a special house.” And if it is proven that her house was an Underground Railroad stop? “The implications are huge,” Boveri said. “If they can find evidence that escaped slaves had been through that house - it just gives us a connection and meaning and a place for African-Americans to come and say, ‘Someone was here,' and connect with the struggles they faced.” If you go What: St. Charles Historic Preservation Commission When: 7 p.m. Wednesday Where: City Hall, 2 E. Main St. Why: Presentation on an archeological study of 606 Cedar St. to verify whether it was a stop on the Underground Railroad Who: Jihad Muhammad, president of the African Scientific Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Chicago, School of Public Health Know More More information about the African Scientific Research Institute is available online at http://www.uic.edu/orgs/asri.

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