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Q: I've heard about tunnels and secret hideaways in downtown Cape that were used to transport runaway slaves to freedom during the Civil War. But I'm not sure where these secret places were or if all the stories are just legend. What are the known facts about the Underground Railroad in this area?
-- Dan Zembsch, Cape Girardeau.
A: "An interesting and recurring question in Cape Girardeau! But in my view, the tunnels are more legend than fact," said Southeast Missouri State University history professor and guru of local lore, Frank Nickell. "These legends are based primarily upon the mysteries of the Underground Railroad, the presence of slavery in this area (close to 1,500 slaves in Cape County in 1860), the dungeon at the Common Pleas Courthouse, and the many wine cellars which existed here in the 19th century. Added emphasis was given to the tunnel stories by the construction of underground tunnels at the college, connecting the buildings on the older campus to provide conduit for heat and power lines."
"But Underground Railroad activity was generally located east of Missouri, crossing the Ohio River into the states of Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania where there were abolitionist groups ready to assist," Nickell explained. "Missouri was a slave state, thus would not have been a prime target of runaway slaves."
Southeast Missourian librarian Sharon Sanders offered a similar answer. "There are rumors of tunnels running from old St. Vincent's Church to the river, the Young Ladies Academy to the river and St. Vincent's College to the river. I've heard all three were Underground Railroad sites. But in the cases of the college and the church, that would be stretching common sense. The Vincentians, who controlled both institutions, owned slaves for years. I might consider the academy story more believable, in that the Sisters of Loretto ran the school. The good Sisters were actively anti-slavery in other parts of the United States. Still, the convent was built right on the river; they would have had no need for tunnels."
Nickell took a slightly different tack in referencing the Vincentians, whose involvement he described as unclear: "Some of the runaways (from deeper South) sought to escape and then move either east or west of the river and bypass Cairo. If they came north on the Missouri side, the one place they might use as a refuge would have been St. Vincent Seminary here and St. Mary's of the Barrens in Perryville. While the Vincentians did own slaves, they had the reputation of compassion and care for all visitors, including slaves. As a religious order they were somewhat closed to public inspection, thus the extent of their involvement remains unclear."
Both Sanders and Nickell referenced the legend of a tunnel between the old Minton House (444 Washington St.) to Old Lorimier Cemetery.
"This was also rumored to be a route of the Railroad," Sanders said. "Alternatively, it was said that it was used to transport dead Union soldiers from the house, which during the Civil War served as a smallpox hospital, to the cemetery for nighttime burial. In this way, the Union officials could keep the number of their dead a secret from Southern spies and sympathizers. But I've never seen any proof that the tunnel ever existed."
"In the book Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain has Jim and Huck on the raft leaving Hannibal, in the north, in order to escape restriction, and he had them going south for that purpose," said Nickell.
"They could have just gone across the river into 'free' northern Illinois, but the story would not have been as good, the adventure less challenging," he said. "Stories continue to be told for several reasons. And the reasons for their persistence reveals much about those who tell them."
Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian.