Hidden in plain view are local landmarks that bear witness to a secret past so well concealed, it was only recently discovered. A church, train depot and several bronze plaques are among spots throughout town that were once connected to the Underground Railroad, a system of transporting fugitives from slave states in the South to Free states in the North and Canada during the early and mid-1800’s.
Not only did this system pass through Jackson County, several residents risked their lives to feed, lodge and transport their undercover passengers. Agents also gave monetary assistance, waged an information campaign in the media, sought political reform and fought a military campaign during the Civil War in an effort to end slavery.
Residents participating in the Underground Railroad strove to remain as anonymous as possible, to avoid detection and even prosecution. But they nevertheless left a trail that can be followed. Walkers will find landmarks connected to this clandestine enterprise within city limits and bicyclers will find points of interest on either end of the county. The below sampling of pertinent locations provides history lovers, human rights devotees and recreational enthusiasts opportunities to experience Jackson in a whole new way!
Located on Austin Road, Norvell Township. This privately owned brick Italianate home was built around 1860 by Underground Railroad agent Royal Watkins. It was the site of a dramatic confrontation between Watkins and a Kentucky posse (see image below).
Jacksonburg Public Square Historic Plaque
Located at the intersection of W. Mich. Ave. and Jackson Street. Many historic buildings were clustered in this spot, including Jackson’s first newspaper, founded by at least two Underground Railroad agents.
Jackson’s Train Station
Located at 501 E. Mich. Ave., was the point of departure for at least two fugitives fleeing southern posses (see image below).
The First Congregational Church
Located at 120 N. Jackson St. This Romanesque revival church was founded by an Underground Railroad agent; several deacons also were agents.
Under the Oaks Park
Located at the intersection of Franklin and Second Streets. This City Park marks the location of the 1854 gathering that launched the Republican Party. Several agents coordinated and attended this gathering (see image below).
Located at the intersection of Devereaux and Gibbs roads, Parma Township. This bronze plaque marks the location of an active Underground Railroad community (see image below).
Jackson’s role in the Underground Railroad is detailed in MICHIGAN’S CROSSROADS TO FREEDOM: the Underground Railroad in Jackson County. The book is available online and locally at the Ella Sharp Museum Gift Shop. Read more.
Author Bio: Linda Hass is a fervent fan of local history. The Jackson resident has a master’s degree in journalism from Michigan State University and writes for several regional publications.