The Munro House in Jonesville, Michigan, is believed to have been used as a stop on the Under­ground Railroad. Evan Carter | Col­legian

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?”

  • Paul Moore

    Great story, Evan. I grew up in a town in northern New Jersey that was an active station on the under­ground railway. In my Hillsdale College years I was active in Phi Sigma Epsilon, whose house stood next door to the Paul house, and Dr. Gilbert was one of my pro­fessors.