On Wednesday, April 18, the Peoria Riverfront Museum is offering free admission to its exhibit, “Celebrate Illinois: 200 Years in the Land of Lincoln.” The exhibit, which celebrates the Illinois bicentennial, features a range of artifacts from Knox College and Galesburg.
Director of the Underground Railroad Center at Knox College Owen Muelder, and Director of Seymour Library Jeffrey Douglas attended the exhibit, which opened in February. Two hundred objects are on display, ranging from Lincoln artifacts to sports paraphernalia, to demonstrate the cultural, political and economic progress that Illinois has made.
Muelder’s contributions include a rare account of the daily activities of Underground Railroad agent Samuel G. Wright. Wright was a trustee of Knox College in the mid-19th century. Muelder noted that Galesburg was the most important site of Underground Railroad activism in downstate Illinois.
“[Galesburg] had a population that was almost unified by its anti-slavery advocacy,” Muelder said. “There were a lot of other towns where people were involved in the Underground Railroad but most of them did not have such a remarkable concentration of abolitionists and Underground Railroad agents.”
Knox College and Galesburg were founded by Presbyterians and Congregationalists from New York who were deeply committed to Christianity as well as the anti-slavery movement. George Washington Gale, the founder of Knox College, was once indicted for helping a fugitive slave escape. Curator of Manuscripts and Archives Carley Robinson believes the founders’ ideological stronghold on Galesburg made it a key site of anti-slavery activism.
“Certainly there were people in Illinois who didn’t have [the founders’] point of view but that was one of the reasons they wanted to create their own town and own place because that way they could control, at least for a very small time, who was here and what they thought,” Robinson said.
Artifacts borrowed from the Knox College Archives and library include an 1867 illustration of plans for the Eads Bridge in St. Louis. Opened in 1874, it was the first railroad bridge built across the Mississippi River.
“This diagram shows the construction and how extensive it was and how, when it was engineered, there was so much speculation and suspicion that before they opened the bridge they led a trail of some elephants across the bridge to show it was sturdy enough to carry a wagon and horses,” Robinson said.
The Eads Bridge is a symbol of American ingenuity. Douglas thinks that Americans could draw inspiration from this past to rebuild infrastructure today. He appreciates that the bridge is a site of historical significance hidden in plain sight.
“There was a time when it was a radical thing to build a bridge that long to carry that much traffic,” Douglas said. “It’s a useful reminder of projects that had to be taken on and successfully completed to see the American economy develop as it did over the course of the 19th century.”
Robinson appreciates the tactile nature of a spoon carved from a wagon wheel by Galesburg resident Robert Avery, while he was imprisoned in Andersonville during the Civil War. Avery went on to become a prominent manufacturer of farm machinery.
“[The spoon] was evidence of his determination and survival. While he was there the legend is that he drew a plan for a reaper, [a piece of] agricultural equipment, in the dust while he was idling away his time,” Robinson said.
Muelder will give a lecture at the Peoria Riverfront Museum on the history of the Underground Railroad in Illinois on April 15. The exhibit “200 Years in the Land of Lincoln” will be open to the public for the rest of the academic year.