by Pamela S. Meyers
|Current view of the Milton House|
Source: Fox 6, Milwaukee WI, February 2018
Growing up in Wisconsin, I learned about the underground railroad in school, but I didn't realize that a strategic stopping point for escaped slaves was very near to my home. As the escaped slaves traveled farther and farther north, they needed assistance from abolitionists along the way to get to Canada. One stop along the route was a stagecoach inn in Wisconsin called the Milton House.
According to the Milton House website:
“Slavery was prohibited in Wisconsin under the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, which also founded our state. However, in 1850, the federal government passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which forced all citizens to help return any escaping enslaved people to their enslavers. Anyone who refused to assist the authorities, or who helped enslavers to escape, was subject to heavy penalties. The Fugitive Slave Act became a rallying point for abolitionists, who felt morally compelled to disobey it and so become criminals in the eyes of the law.”
|A display in the former root cellar where the freedom seekers |
spent time at the stop.
The root cellar of the hexagonally shaped Milton House offered a safe place for the escapees in the area directly below the inn’s public room.
When Goodrich built the Milton House, he incorporated a secret entry into its foundation that would eventually lead to a tunnel between the inn and the cabin. After the tunnel was completed a rather ingenious system evolved. The freedom seekers, hidden beneath potatoes and other root vegetables and sometimes firewood, would arrive under the cover of darkness on horse-drawn wagons from another stop along the route. After they were dropped off at the cabin, they would descend a narrow stairway and enter the tunnel that would take them 45 feet to the root cellar. There they would be fed and given warm clothes. When it was time for them to depart for the next stop, they would return to the cabin in complete darkness through the tunnel and be on their way before dawn.
|The enlarged tunnel today allows people to pass through.|
Source for both photos: onlyinyourstate.com
Initially. the tunnel was no more than four feet high, but in later years, the passageway was widened, and the walls bricked, making it easier for people to walk between the two buildings. As shown above, people today can somewhat experience what the freedom seekers did by entering the cabin, then descending steep, narrow stairs to the tunnel. At the tunnel's end, they enter the former root cellar in the main building.
Because the cabin also served as the inn’s kitchen, it was a busy place. Thus, any activity caused by the Underground Railroad wouldn’t have drawn much attention.
The Milton House is a museum where you can learn more about the Goodriches, see the small apartment where he and Nancy lived, and even have your picture taken next to a life-sized photo of the couple. Tours are available that include a walk through the tunnel. More information about the museum and how to obtain tickets for a tour can be found at www.miltonhouse.org.
Check out this video that gives a quick visual snapshot of the Milton House.