Several homes in Hillsdale County, including one on college grounds, are rumored to have been part of the Underground Railroad. While there are no records of the college helping runaway slaves escape by participating in the network of secret routes and safehouses, some believe the Dow Residence on Hillsdale Street was once a safehouse on the Underground Railroad.
“The college itself did not endorse the Underground Railroad,” Professor Emeritus of History Arlan Gilbert said. “The Underground Railroad was organized and came through southern Michigan without the college itself as the college taking an active role or with [former Hillsdale College President] Ransom Dunn or any of the other founders taking active leadership.”
He said there are countless rumors the Dow Residence was a stop in the years before the Civil War.
“Part of it is an untold story, because we know there were many blacks who were brought North to freedom and it was a very important movement, but again, much of it can’t be documented because by its very nature, it held onto secrecy,” Gilbert said. “So to this day, we can see its results, but we can’t pinpoint stations very well.”
The Dow Residence was first owned by John Potter Cook, who is considered to be one of the city of Hillsdale’s founding fathers. Cook was a Democratic state senator and abolitionist before the Civil War. There is evidence indicating there may have been a tunnel connecting the Dow Residence with what is now the Sigma Chi house, though any previously existing tunnel has since been closed off.
Gilbert also noted that while the college didn’t officially endorse the Underground Railroad, it was active in the abolitionist movement, and accepted black students from its founding in 1844.
“We definitely were one of the strongest abolitionist colleges in the country,” Gilbert said.
South of the college, the Rowlson-Carlisle Home on 60 N. West St. in Hillsdale is also thought to have been part of the Underground Railroad.
According to Mike Venturini, who owns and operates the Munro House Bed and Breakfast with his wife Lori, there are also three or four buildings in Jonesville alleged to have been stops, including the Munro House.
In local historian Dan Bisher’s account of the early days of Hillsdale County, “Faded Memories,” Joyce Yard, who owned the bed and breakfast before the Venturinis, said her research indicates that 400 to 450 slaves were sheltered in the Munro House in the years leading up to the Civil War. Venturini hasn’t been able to find any definitive evidence that slaves came through the Munro House, but said he’s heard different Underground Railroad stories from Jonesville residents.
Based on his own research, Venturini believes that, in 1841, after George Munro bought the two lots where the Munro House currently stands, he built a tunnel from the basement of the house to the lot southwest of the house (currently 214 South St. in Jonesville) and in 1848, built a northern wing to the house which contains a hidden storage area above its bathroom.
Although the tunnel is believed to have been filled in during the mid-1960s, the storage area above the bathroom on the north wing of the house is still there. In “Faded Memories,” Bisher mentions both the storage area and the tunnel as areas Munro built with the intent of hiding slaves.
In a September 15, 1960 letter from Alice Barkman, Munro’s granddaughter, to a Jonesville resident, Barkman claimed there never was a tunnel in the basement of the house which slaves used to gain freedom.
Still, even though Venturini hasn’t been able to find definitive evidence the Munro House was a stop on the Underground Railroad, he thinks it’s likely.
“You put the artifacts together,” Venturini said. “What else would they use it for?”