Newspaper Clippings for
24 June 1981
Countians helped fugitive slaves
By BARBARA APPLE
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
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
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
"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
"I can't verify that a room was there and I never saw one," he
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
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
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."