The Underground Railroad

PAMPLISEST #1921: Hwy 30 (page 60)



Personally conducted excursions into the past are both pleasant and profitable, but we should also like to recommend to adventurous souls that now and then they leave the easy chair and the book beside the fire and take to the open road on pilgrimages of their own to the scenes of yesterday.  The trail may lead across country on a four days’ walking tour or it may lead around the corner to some historic spot in the immediate neighborhood.  East, west, north and south---everywhere there are shrines of the past.

            The articles in this number present a kaleidoscopic view of the Old Military Road from Dubuque to Iowa City.  But there were other military roads in Iowa, and there were roads, unsurveyed, where the wheels of emigrant wagons followed the deep-worn paths of Indian travel.  There were many trails of adventure and a few thoroughfares of suffering migration.  From the river to river across the southern part of the State runs the old Mormon Trail, beaten in winter and summer by the feet and the wagons of thousands of fugitive followers of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, fleeing from the wrath of Illinois neighbors in ling processions over the rolling prairies and hills toward the West.  Children were born on the way, and along the trail hundred of graves were dug.

            Another trail went east across the State,  It left no beaten path.  Its traffic was a hidden traffic, for the travelers passed by night, slipping furtively from station to station of the underground railroad or convoyed in covered wagons or under loads of produce by men who hated the institution of slavery.  Tabor was the first station of the main road, and Lewis and Des Moines and Grinnell and Iowa City and Clinton lay upon this hidden highway toward freedom.  

PAGE 130-137  

            The Underground Railroad in Iowa was only a part of a complete system with trunk lines and branches which extended through practically all the northern States.  The main line entered the State in its southwest  corner near Tabor, passed through the towns of Lewis, Des Moines, Grinnell, Iowa City, West Liberty, Tipton, DeWitt and Low Moor, and crossed the Mississippi River at Clinton to connect with a route in Illinois.

            Most of the fugitives who came from Nebraska and Missouri and entered Iowa in the southwestern part of the State first boarded the Underground Railroad at or near the town of Civil Bend (now Percival),  about five miles east of the Missouri River and twenty-five miles north of the northern boundary of Missouri.  From this point fugitives were conveyed to Tabor.  This was a very important station because here the entire population was in sympathy with escaping slaves and practically every family was ready to day anything to help the fugitives .  Sometimes the slaves were escorted to the next station on foot, sometimes they were driven in buggies or oxcarts or wagons.

            In the western part of the State the problem was a comparatively simple one.  The population was still quite sparse and the chances of detection correspondingly small.  But it must be remembered that every person aiding a slave to escape was a violator of the fugitive slave law and as such rendered himself liable to fine and imprisonment.  So even here the promoters were compelled to exercise continual vigilance lest they and their passengers be apprehended.  It was necessary to have agents promptly at their posts so that no time would be lost in forwarding the passengers.  Notices must be sent ahead telling of coming passengers, warnings of approaching danger must be given , and necessary funds had to be provided.  The responsibility for carrying out these matters devolved upon the conductors of the road.

            All along the route of the Underground Railroad were families willing to make their home a station for the refuge and forwarding of runaway slaves.  It was not always possible to dispatch the passengers to the next station immediately and in such cases they were concealed in the homes of promoters, in their garrets or cellars, sometimes in caves on or near the premises, and quite frequently in outbuildings until a favorable opportunity for a “flitting” presented itself.  Most of the trains were dispatched at night and indeed the darkest and stormiest nights were preferred for the operations.  Sometimes passengers remained at a station for day at a time until an opportunity for sending them on should present itself or be created by the conductor.

            In this manner fugitives passed through the various towns--from Percival to Tabor, through Lewis and Des Moines to Grinnell.  Here it was almost certain that the well known J. B. Grinnell would take care of the fugitives.  He had a room in his home which was very appropriately called the “liberty room” and was devoted to the harboring of passengers on the Underground Railroad.  No doubt this made a very comfortable station.  When John Brown came to Grinnell with his band of fugitives from Missouri on that cold night in the winter of 1858-1859, it was in this room that the fugitives were cheered and given an opportunity to rest.  Thus with rests at frequent intervals the fugitives continued their journey from town to town.  After Grinnell came Iowa City, then West Liberty, Tipton, Low Moor, and finally Clinton.

            In the eastern part of the State, Underground Railroading required great care and precaution in order to avoid detection, but the promoters were equal to the occasion and resorted to various means for forwarding the passengers.  On one occasion John Brown was able to secure railroad passage for his band of fugitives.  Through the good offices of William Penn Clarke, of Iowa City, and J. B. Grinnell, a box car was obtained and held in readiness at West Liberty.  The fugitives were then dispatched to this place from Springdale and, after spending the night in Keith’s Mill (an old grist mill near the station), were loaded into the empty freight car.  The car was then attached to a train bound for Chicago on the Rock Island Railroad.  At Chicago the famous detective,  Allen Pinkerton, took the party in charge and dispatched it to Detroit.

            All passengers, however, were not as fortunate as this band.  Most of them had to go from station to station by the slower methods of horse-drawn conveyance or on foot.  At Iowa City, William Penn Clarke and Dr. Jesse Bowen were always ready to aid the cause.  It was in the latter’s home, situated on Iowa Avenue between Governor and Summit streets, that John Brown was concealed during his last night in Iowa City when he was hard pressed by a band of men bent on capturing him because of his “nigger stealing”.

            After a “stop-over” in Iowa City passengers might be ticketed to one of several stations.  Perhaps they could be taken to Springdale to partake of the hospitality of the Quakers, and from there to West Liberty.  Perhaps conditions were favorable for making  a longer run and the train might go directly to West Liberty.  At this place the old grist mill which harbored John Brown’s band of fugitives would probably serve as a waiting room.

            The next stop was generally Tipton.  For reasons known to the operators the railroad did not run into the town.  As it sometimes the case with the steam railroads of to-day the depot was on the outskirts of the village.  The Humphrey home situated about two and one-half miles south of Tipton was an important station on the Underground Railroad.  A member of the family has related that it was not unusual for whole families of colored folk to remain at their home over night.  The next day it was Grandfather’s task to carry them farther on their way.  Daylight did not prevent the operations of this conductor.  He would load the human freight into his wagon and cover them with blankets, thus disguising them as bag of grain.

            Once more the train was in motion.  On the long lonely stretches of the road between the Humphrey home and Posten’s Grove--a distance of about fifteen miles--curly heads and black faces often popped out from among the “grain sacks” to survey the country through which the train was passing.  When strangers appeared the command was to “duck”.  Needless to say the order was promptly obeyed and the passengers became part of the load of bags of grain which, to all appearances, Grandfather was hauling to the grist mill.  When Posten’s Grove was reached this venerable old conductor had completed his  “run”.  He transferred his passengers to the care of other conductors who in turn relayed them to DeWitt. Next to Low Moor and finally to Clinton -- the last Iowa station on the Underground Railroad.

            The final stages of the trip through Iowa were the most difficult and perhaps therefore the most interesting.  In the eastern part of the State population was more dense and hence a greater number of persons were opposed to the Underground Railroad.  This necessitated greater vigilance and more detailed and complete organization.  The number of persons engaged in the work was also greater in proportion to the work to be done.  Some of the prominent agents in DeWitt were Captain Burdette, Judge Graham, and Mrs. J. D. Stillman.  These people could be trusted to take care of the fugitives and to send them on to Low Moor when they thought conditions favorable.  In this latter town were G. W. Weston, Abel B. Gleason, B. R. Palmer, J. B. Jones. Lawrence Mix, Nelson Olin, and others  who were anxious to tender their services.

            The guiding spirit and chief promoter of the Underground Railroad at this place seems to have been G. W. Weston.  It devolved upon him especially to see that agents and stations were in readiness,  to provide the necessary funds, to give warning of approaching danger, and to advise the master of the next station about coming passengers.  On one occasion G. W. Weston sent the following letter to C. B. Campbell at Clinton:

 Low Moor, May 6, 1859.

Mr. C. B. C.:

            Dear Sir--By tomorrow evening’s mail, you will receive two volumes of the “Irressible Conflict” bound in black.  After perusal, please forward, and oblige.  

Yours truly,     G. W. W.          

This is typical of the correspondence carried on between stations.  Such were the train dispatches.  They served the purpose of telling the agent at the next station of the coming of fugitives, together with a pretty accurate idea of the number; and the peculiar wording in which the information was couched often told of the age, complexion, and sex of the comers.

            When the fugitives arrived in Clinton it was usually C. B. Campbell who sought a place for them to stay.  Quite frequently he would secrete them in the attic of his home, a small framed building near the corner of Sixth Avenue and Second Street.  On other occasion fugitives were kept in a cave, used as a cellar, in a garden belonging to J. R. and A. Bather, or in the garret of their home until the next train was ready to start.  It happened at one time that two fugitive slaves--a man and his wife-- were being concealed in this garret when a message was received from DeWitt that slave catchers were in hot pursuit.  This place of concealment was thought to be too much suspected and it was deemed best to have a “flitting” as soon as possible.

            Andrew Bather undertook to convey the fugitives out of the town.  he procured for the occasion a covered family carriage which belonged to H. P. Stanley.  In this he transported them to Lyons to which place C. B. Campbell had gone to hire a skiff to convey them across the river.  The river was full of ice and it was only after paying a high price that the owner of the skiff agreed to make the crossing.  During this trip the woman, whose complexion was so fair as to give her the appearance of a white woman, represented herself as the owner if her husband.

            Not all of the fugitives passed through the stations which we have mentioned.  Many never reached any of them. There were at least three parallel lines of the Underground Railroad branching from Tabor and running  eastward to the Mississippi.  Besides these main lines there were innumerable branch lines and “spurs” which connected with the main lines.  The presence of so many routes was due to the fact that not all of the escaping negroes entered Iowa in its southwest corner.  The came into the State at various points along the southern border wherever the opportunity existed.  In fact the great majority of the slaves effected their escape alone, and completed the first and, in many respects, the most difficult part of their journey towards freedom unaided.