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Was There an Underground Railroad in Beloit?
We have no actual evidence of Beloit having any active participation in the underground railroad helping fugitive slaves escape from their bondage, but do have evidence of anti-slavery sentiment and individual actions of members of the community, assisting fugitive slaves prior to the Civil War.
There is one recorded incident involving a fugitive slave living and working in Beloit in 1854. This comes from a brief article in the Beloit Journal, dated August 1, 1854:
"U.G.R.R. That "cullud pusson" familiarly known to our citizens as "Doc." who has for some time past devoted his time and vocal talents to the service of the Beloit River Hotel as porter and runner to the cars therefore, received on Monday last an intimation that all fugitive slaves stand on slippery places, and was advised to take passage on the above mentioned road, which we learn extends considerably further north than the Beloit and Madison - even to Her Majesty's dominions; and Humanity being conductor on it, "goods and chattels" have for some time been passed duty free into Canada, even before the late reciprocity treaty between the U.S. and Canada was confirmed. This furnishes another proof that humanity often anticipates legislation. The "Doc" was not a man of brilliant parts, but he did what he could to make the understandings of others shine. His powers of persuasion were remarkable, his emphatic invitation, "right this way for the Rock River Hotel," seldom being disregarded. But he is "gone where the good niggers go." His southern proprietor need give himself no unnecessary concern and expense in regard to him.
"Sic itur ad north astra," by all "sich" as he until the advent of the "good time coming."
Note: “sic itur ad astra” is literally translated as - thus one goes to the stars (sometimes “immortality” substituted for stars). The editor added the word “north” as Doc was headed to Canada.
The letters "U.G.R.R." are certainly for Under Ground Rail Road. The importance of this article, and its date, also rests on the fact that in the August 1, 1854 edition of the Beloit Journal it was announced that the arrival of the first train of the Beloit from Freeport, via Chicago - Beloit was now able to be reached by train from Chicago, the East and the South. The article makes reference to "all fugitive slaves stand on slippery places," as the Fugitive Slave Law permitted slave owners, or hired slave catchers, to pursue fugitive slaves and wherever found, return them in chains to their "owners." Doc "was advised" to head toward Canada, by whom we don't know.
The last sentence of the article presents a clue as to why “Doc” fled: "His southern proprietor need give himself no unnecessary concern and expense in regard to him." Was Doc advised, or did he know that this "southern proprietor" of the Rock River Hotel would now see the possibility of a reward for turning in Doc as a fugitive slave?
The language of the article makes clear, however, the anti-slavery position of the Beloit Journal in 1854, by its reference to the timely escape of "Doc" to await the "advent of the good times coming."
Three months after Doc fled to Canada, Joshua R. Giddings and Frederick Douglass spoke in Beloit in November 1854, at the Baptist Church (formerly at te NE corner of Pleasant St. and East Grand) his address noted in the weekly Beloit Journal on November 11, 1954:
GIDDINGS AND DOUGLASS IN BELOIT
On Wednesday afternoon of last week, Hon. JOSHUA R. GIDDINGS, of Ohio, addressed the citizens of Beloit at the Baptist church with a full house. We were unable to be present but a few moments, but learn that the speech was pronounced to be an able and satisfactory effort. He proceeded from here to Janesville, Madison, &c.
On Monday evening last, FRED. DOUGLASS, the renowned and eloquent fugitive slave, spoke at this place. Although the notice of his coming had been spread but a few hours before the time appointed for him to speak, the Baptist church was crowded to overflowing, and for two hours and a half he held the audience in interested attention, while he poured forth a mingled torrent of argument, wit, and sarcasm - all burning with eloquence and informed with power. We cannot attempt to give even a sketch of his address or its effect on the audience, but will simply said that whoever has an opportunity of hearing FRED. DOUGLASS and neglects to enjoy it, does injustice to himself.
There was obvious anti-slavery opposition in Beloit, to have both of these nationally known gentlemen speak to the community. Frederick Douglass is an historical figure well known today. But, Joshua R. Giddings, in 1854, was also well known, perhaps at that time more so that Douglass.
Joshau R. Giddings, was a Congressman from Ohio, had started as a Whig, became a member of the Free Soil Party, and then was one of the founders of the Republican Party. He has noted for his hatred for slavery, as a “radical Republican.” and public supporter of the Underground Railroad. The appearance of both Douglass and Giddings indicates a number of people in Beloit shared their anti-slavery positions.
In 1856 a Rock County chapter of the Kansas Emigrant Aid Society was formed to support people who were willing to move to “Bleeding Kansas” to vote to make Kansas a “free state.” The Beloit Journal on March 16, 1856, reporting on an organizational meeting in Beloit, where several men volunteered to go to Kansas, finished its story with the words:
“At no time in the history of our government have the principals of justice, and appeals of humanity been in so close as conflict with the powers of darkness as now. The slave power has invaded the sanctuary of liberty, step by step, until further submission to its encroachments required only an acknowledgment of its rights to supremacy, but a surrender of principles, which every true freeman will resist. Within the past few months past the North has been inclined to do, what should have been done twenty years ago, vis: to insist that freedom is national, and slavery sectional, and that all efforts to force farther submission to the demands of the South for a wider range of its institution, must and shall be resisted.”
It is important to note that the above said nothing about abolishment of slavery.
By the evidence and documents available to us, it must be recognized that Beloit entered the Civil War not as an “abolitionist” town, but as a “Union” town. On April 16 through 19, 1861, following the attack on Fort Sumter, Beloit (and other communities) held mass meetings, involving speeches from local citizens, urging support of President Lincoln, and urging young men to volunteer for military service.
A reading of the reports of those meeting here in Beloit fails to reveal a single word spoken by the numerous business, religious and political figures about slavery as an issue, or abolishing slavery as a goal. The theme was preservation of the Union.
Two primary research books, the History of Rock County, Wisconsin, by C. W. Butterfield, 1879, and the History of Rock County, by Rev. William Fiske Brown, 1908, give detailed accounts of the histories of both Beloit and Janesville, including the listing of the military services of members of those communities. Neither contain one word about an Underground Railroad, nor slavery as an issue in either community during that period of time.
It is submitted that Rev. William Fiske Brown, a Civil War veteran, Presbyterian minister, and faculty member of Beloit College, would not have allowed such an event as an underground railroad station in Beloit, if fact, to go unmentioned in either of his books on local history, History of Rock County, or earlier book, Past Made Present 1830 to 1900, written in 1900. A member of a prominent pioneer Beloit family, in Past Made Present, he proudly acknowledged that his father: “...in 1842, amid may jeers from other voters, Benjamin Brown voted the first anti-slavery ticket offered in Beloit.”
To Put to Rest the Myth of the Carpenter House
Although newspaper reports in the 1850's show that several Beloit and other Rock County residents went to Bleeding Kansas, and there was active anti-slavery support in Beloit, there has never been found any evidence, after long and diligent research, that Beloit was ever a station on the underground railroad. The rumor/story that the "Carpenter" house located on the West bank of the Rock River, was an underground railroad "station" was repeated, but not credited in writing until 1936, when the Beloit Centennial Book was published by the Beloit Daily News, and under a print of the house, as it looked in 1853, in the caption after describing the house, is the following sentence: "Tradition says it was a 'station' of the Underground Railroad that sheltered runaway slaves from the South." How such “tradition says” myths can be fed, is shown in a report prepared by some students at Beloit College in 1991, repeating the rumor, offering no evidence of fact, and saying about the house:
"It formerly had a cupola on top, a speculated hallmark of Underground Railroad homes, from which one had a clear view of the Tallman House in Janesville, another probable site. It also had an underground tunnel, part of which can still be used, that went out to the barn and then down to the river. The tunnel is about seven feet high, and easily could transport an adult. The house was built in the late 1840's, under a special design scheme from George. Carpenter became a Congregationalist just before he moved here, and the Congregationalist Church was one of the strongest abolitionist groups in America."
A little research into Beloit's history shows that in Beloit the "Congregationalist Church" was not "one of the strongest abolitionist groups" in this Community, and in fact, the First Presbyterian Church was created from a split-off of members of the First Congregational Church because of their concerns that the First Congregational Church would not permit the discussion of slavery within its confines. The errors in the above quoted results of this Beloit College "student report" can be answered today, but over the passage of time, if not answered would gain credibility, become accepted and believed mistaken fact, and add more fuel for the crediting of Beloit as being part of the Underground Railroad in existence in the pre-Civil War era.
First we discharge the "cupola theory" off hand. A house with a cupola did not make for an underground railroad station, if that were fact, slave catching would have been a simple task.
Second, even from the cupola on the Carpenter House, and using the best telescopes of that day (or today) - you could not have had a “clear view” or even seen the Tallman House in Janesville, as the Rock River then, as now, bends several times between Beloit and Janesville, and geological factors, such a Big Hill, make such an allegation impossible.
Third, extensive research of the Tallman House by the Rock County Historical Society and Janesville historians, does not reveal it was ever used on the underground railroad. It it had been, that fact would have been, long ago, added to its proud history of having Abraham Lincoln as a guest in 1860.
And, fourth, the tunnel, well here we have some evidence there was a tunnel, but no seven foot tunnel. By merely looking at the elevation of the Carpenter House, and projecting a “tunnel” from its basement coming out near the bank of the Rock River would be an impossibility.
Until such time as some hard evidence proves otherwise, it's time to put to rest the story of Beloit as an Underground Railroad Station for escaping slaves, where the story rests on the sole allegation of the fact of a tunnel at the "Carpenter House." One story, widely quoted over the years, was that in the basement of this house was a "40 foot tunnel, high enough to drive an ordinary sized car, that led to the river bank." In fact, when the Carpenter House was remodeled in 1954, after its purchase by the United States Steel Workers Local Union, what workers on that project found is reported by Earl Sonneson, who was a member of the remodeling crew. Larry Raymer of the Beloit Daily News had written an article on the Carpenter House, mentioning the "tunnel story" but qualifying it as being an unverified part of Beloit's history. Albert Sonneson, a master Beloit builder, had received the contract to remodel the Carpenter House, and his son, Earl, following in his father's footsteps as one of Beloit's master builders, worked on his father's crew. Writing to Larry Raymer, Earl Sonneson, put fact into the tunnel myth:
"You state that remodeling took place in 1953. I recall the year was 1954. Small point indeed. I would also dispute the tunnel situation. As I recall at that time there was a lower level room on the north side of the present basement. Not directly beneath it, you understand. It consisted of a small room, approximately 10 by 10 by 6 high, built of brick in a rounded fashion.
The biography of A.B. Carpenter, is found in the C. W. Butterfield History of Rock County, 1879, and William Fiske Brown Rock County History, 1908, and does not reveal anything in his background, political beliefs, personal or family history indicating any involvement in the Underground Railroad movement. Mr. Carpenter, was a pioneer Beloit merchant, property owner, builder and operator of an early Beloit hotel, and prominent citizen of Beloit until his death, at age 91 in 1903. Nothing is mentioned in his obituary alluding to any underground railroad activities, and his politics, other than that he served on the Beloit City Council at one time, were not even mentioned.