The Underground Railroad was established before the Civil War as a route slaves followed to escape to freedom into Canada. Slaves began their journeys with a great deal of bravery and little else. They had virtually no help until they reached the northern non-slave states like Michigan. Even then, the help was still sparse and hard to find, because helping escaping slaves was illegal and had severe consequences if someone was caught, with strict fines or even death. Because of this threat, secrecy was essential, so this route was kept “underground”.
A main route along the Underground Railroad followed the main road leading to Detroit, along what is now Michigan Avenue, so it makes sense that Battle Creek, Marshall, and Albion all offered “stations” (safe places), for escaping slaves to rest for a short time while making this dangerous journey.
At this time, the newest mode of transportation was the railroad, and everyone was talking about it using the new terms – stations, stationmasters, conductors, and passengers. Looking for a way to communicate, but also keep the messages secret, the people involved started using these new words. So, the “railroad” was the route (it was never an actual railroad), “passengers” were escaping slaves, and “stationmasters” and “conductors” were sympathetic people along the route who helped the escapees along.
“Stations” along the Underground Railroad were usually a night’s travel apart, usually 10 to 20 miles apart. If indoors, the stations were farmhouse attics, cellars, the space under floorboards, or inside hidden rooms. They could also be found in barns under hay, or in outbuildings behind a woodpile. Outside, a cave or hollowed-out riverbank was preferred, but a tree might do the trick in a hurry. After hiding and resting during the day, the fugitives either walked to their next destination, or they were ferried in a boat or in the bed of a wagon.
Today it is hard to determine if a space was actually used as part of the Underground Railroad. Lots of hidden spaces were used during Prohibition to hide illegal alcohol. Some spaces that may have been used to hide slaves may have later hidden alcohol too. Since both hiding alcohol or slaves was illegal and subject to severe penalties if caught, hardly anyone wrote about them even in letters and no one openly admitted to having such a space. The spaces most commonly used were also “normal spaces” requiring no altered walls, etc., so although many rooms and basements may have been used in the past to hide slaves it is very hard to know for certain today.
Due to the generosity of its citizens and a rather large black population at the time, many escaped slaves chose to remain in Calhoun County instead of continuing to Canada. They built homes and businesses as they integrated themselves into the community.