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Newspaper Clippings for
June, 1981

from Waukegan News-Sun24 June 1981
Laying Tracks
Countians helped fugitive slaves
News-Sun Librarian
Reminiscence and sketchy records are insufficient basis for historical research. In the case of the Underground Railroad in Lake County though, they're about all one has.
The Underground Railroad was a secret system set up by northern abolitionists to help fugitive slaves escape to the free north and to Canada in the days before the Civil War.
The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad. The metaphor first appeared in print in the early 1840's and other railroad terminology was added.
The trains, as the escorted groups were called, had to travel mostly at night for secrecy. The routes were lines; guides were conductors; stopping places, where the fugitives might eat and rest in safety, were stations or depots and slaves were known as freight, passengers, or packages.
These terms created the impression the Underground Railroad was a highly systematized national organization that accomplished daring feats in helping slaves to freedom. The truth was, most of the help given the fugitives was spontaneously offered, not only by abolitionists or members of the Underground Railroad, but by many others in sympathy with the runaway slaves.
Escapes on the Underground Railroad were highly publicized and exaggerated. Nontheless, an estimated 75,000 slaves were said to have passed through the Underground Railroad. Traffic was heaviest after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. This law, which levied fines and penalties on those who were convicted of aiding escaped slaves, also stated slaves could be returned to their owners from free states.
Because of the danger involved, no official reports were made, no lists of conductors were kept and routes were often changed. Sympathizers preferred not to know anything outside the operation of their own section of the underground movement so that if caught, they could not be a witness in court against fellow abolitionists.
Geographical routes of the Underground Railroad across the United States have been pieced together and there is evidence that Lake County was incorporated in this network.
In the middle 1840's, the Rev. William Bradford Dodge, the first pastor of the Millburn Congregational Church, was, according to an 1891 publication, a "strong anti-slavery man and was noted for his zeal in the anti-slavery cause. His voice was often heard upon the lecture platform advocating the cause of freedom for the oppressed Negro."
Coming to Lake County from Salem, Mass., where he had been president of the Anti-Slavery Society, Dodge became active in the Lake County Liberty Society and on March 4th, 1846, was chosen president of the society, with C. C. Caldwell vice president and Lathrop Bullen, secretary.
At the time, Dodge's home, one mile south of Millburn, was suspected as a station where the slaves were harbored and then sent on. It appears those suspicions were well founded. Dodge did indeed build his home with his activities in mind. When the house was demolished, two cellers were found, one for fruits and vegetables, and one, apparently, for slaves.
In addition, Millburn resident Mrs. Carl Anderson, has letters that document activity by William Bonner in the Underground Railroad.
"Deacon William Bonner furnished the transportation...wagons and horses ... from Millburn to Somers. (Somers is a township in northern Kenosha County.) After the horses had been out on a trip in muddy weather, Bonner's son and nephew had to clean and curry the horses in secret to avoid questions, as farm horses had no reason to be out at night or covered with fresh mud."
The conveyance of fugitives from station to station took on a variety of methods. False-bottom wagons, packing slaves in straw along with produce and livestock, shipping slaves in boxes by boat and rail, and mock funeral processions were all ruses used to help move the runaways.
The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 18, tells of a daring escape masterminded by Israel Blodgett, father of Judge Henry Blodgett of Waukegan.
"To the house of Israel P. Blodgett, came on day two slaves, one a girl apparently white, daughter of her former master, well educated, and traveled in Europe. The hunt was hot after them but Blodgett's horses were used up; their only chance of escape seemed a certain neighbor who was strong for the fugitive law. He asked the neighbor in to supper and in a charming gown she (the slave) used her charms and accomplishments to touch the neighbor's susceptible heart. The she slipped out of the room, reappeared in the rags of slavery and kneeling to him begged him to save her. The neighbor not only carried her to Chicago and safety but became a prime hand in the Underground."
The Henry Blodgett home, at 404 S. Sheridan Road, was also said to have had a secret room, approximately 15 by 15 that ran under the first floor and out under the back porch, that might have been used to hide the slaves.
Peyton Atterbery, Waukegan, whose family lived in the Blodgett home for more than 20 years was asked if he knew about the secret room.
"I can't verify that a room was there and I never saw one," he said.
Edith O'Dell Kuhn, Gurnee, whose family lived in the Blodgett home after the Atterberys' cannot verify a room existed either.
"We knew it was a landmark house and that Lincoln had been a visitor to the house," she said.
The visit Kuhn referred to took place in March 1860 when Henry Blodgett, Elisha Ferry, Clarke Upton, and Homer Cook, met with Republican Presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln.
Seth Paine, Lake Zurich, was also known as a strong Abolitionist. The book "Past and Present, Lake County in 1877" printed the following about Paine:
"Some two or three years after Paine took up residence, he suddenly plunged into the Abolition movement, and commenced to advocate the abolition of slavery in the United States. He became prominent and exceedingly zealous in this movement. This was at a time when the agitation of this subject was very unpopular. Those who engaged in it were ridiculed by their neighbors and in the public prints without reserve. Among his neighbors he had one sympathizer and co-worker in this movement, in the person of Thomas Haggerty, who lived about three miles north, and who is likewise remembered for his zeal, and as a pioneer in this movement."
Among others involved in the Underground Railroad movement, that can be documented, were Gilbert Gennett, Phillip Blanchard, Christian Haydecker, and Michael Coon. Coon's last name was sometimes spelled Kuhn.
Not far from the Coon (Kuhn) farm was a large boulder estimated to weigh 20 tons and was said to have been a landmark in guiding the slaves to Coon's cabin approximately 200 yards away. The rock was said to be one of the largest granite rocks in the state of Illinois.
A letter sent from Eva Lewin Shirk of California in 1974 to the News-Sun recalled a large farm near Rosecrans, that was owned by her Uncle Henry Lewin Jr. "On this farm," she wrote, " was a huge boulder that was said to have been a marking for runaway slaves during the Civil War. From this boulder, the slaves went to a hideaway log cabin." The rock still stands and is located in Newport Township west of I-94.
Another haven for slaves was a barn in Gurnee, located north of what is now Old Grand Avenue. Demolished some years ago, the wood from the barn was preserved and now is part of the decor of Poor Richard's Pub in Gurnee.
Richard Diesterheft, who built the Pub in 1979, said "the interior of the Pub is the same beautiful textured wood of the barn in which the slaves were hidden. Some of the wood has inscriptions and these designs could have been made by the slaves."
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