The Underground Railroad in Elkhart County, Indiana
From: Pioneer History of Elkhart County, Indiana
With Sketches and Stories
By: Henry S. K. Bartholomew
Press of the Goshen Printery
Goshen, Indiana 1930


IN RECENT years considerable interest has been shown in the famous underground railroad concerning which a great deal more was known before the Civil war. Local historians in many counties have tried to find out whether there were any stations of this famous thoroughfare in their respective counties and if so where they were located. Writers on Indiana history have also given the matter considerable attention but have not been able to throw a great deal of light upon the subject. It is generally known that the residence of Levi Coffin, in Wayne county was one of the most important stations in the state and has been called the union station of the underground railroad in Indiana. Our state histories however, do not mention Elkhart county, doubtless because the writers thereof never learned anything about the road or any of its stations here.

Several years of investigation have brought out the information that there were six of those stations in the county. Five of these were in Jefferson township and one in Washington township. The last mentioned was the home of Owen Coffin, just east of Bristol. The writer has been told that a part of Mr. Coffin's house is still standing. Those in Jefferson township were the residence of Abner Blue, William Martin, James G. Mitchell, Henry G. Davis and Charles L. Murray. All of these men were prominent citizens of the county in their day and generation, but today there are comparatively few people in the county who know anything about any of them. All of them were farmers during part of their lives and it was at their farm homes that the stations were operated.

The residence of Mr. Blue was on the Goshen and Bristol road, the first house north of the line between Elkhart and Jefferson townships and in the corner where the road makes its first jog to the east. For several years it was the residence of Wise Showalter. William Martin first lived on the north side of Pine Creek and across the creek from the old Pleasant View church and Pine Creek cemetery. Later he moved to a farm about a mile south of that on the same road. The farm was afterward owned for quite a number of years by Benjamin V. Case. The James G. Mitchell farm is about three quarters of a mile west of the Center school house. The house stood for many years a quarter of a mile south of the road, but has been moved south a quarter of a mile to another road. Many people of the present generation remember it as the home of Paul Kirkendorfer, Sr., who bought it of the Mitchell family after Mr. Mitchell died. The farm of Col. Henry G. Davis joined the Mitchell farm on the west and the house stood on the east side of the road, something over a mile south of the Seminary school house. For quite a number of years he operated a saw mill, obtaining his power from Pine Creek, which ran through his farm and across which there was a dam. Besides sawing lumber for himself Col. Davis did custom sawing for people who came quite a number of miles in every direction. The Davis saw mill was one of the best known places in Jefferson township for many years. Mr. Davis, when a young man, was one of the earliest teachers of the Bristol school. Both he and Mr. Mitchell became operators' of stations on the underground railroad through Dr. E. W. H. Ellis, who occasionally asked them to keep slaves who were moving northward.

The most prominent of these underground stations and which afterward became the best known of any was the home of Hon. Charles L. Murray. I n fact to many people in the county this is the only one that is known today. The reason why more slaves stopped there than at any other place was because Mr. Murray was more active in the abolition movement than any of the other men and because his home was on one of the main thoroughfares of the county. It was located five miles north of Goshen on the Goshen and Bristol road. For more than twenty five years the farm was owned and occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Edward H. Gardner and since Mr. Gardner's death by Mrs. Gardner. The house was burned down February 21, 1927, and a modern bungalow occupies the spot where it stood.

For years it was supposed by all who knew of this station, the writer included, that the old frame house which was the farm residence there for sixty five years, was the building which was used as the station. An interview several years ago with Gordon N. Murray, of Nappanee, son of Mr. Murray, brought out the information that this house was not built until 1862, a year after the civil war had begun and while Mr. Murray was in the army. During all of the years that he kept runaway slaves', he and his family lived in a log house which stood almost on the site of the later frame building but a little farther back from the road. Gordon Murray said that the slaves always slept in the barn and that they sucked all of the eggs they could find, sometimes even robbing the setting hens' nests.

For many years the slaves were carried from one station to another during the night and were secreted during the day time. Occasionally they were transported in day time, when they were concealed in a load of straw or hay or by some other means, but night was the safest time to travel and that was the usual time. Each operator of a station took them to the next one, as they were known to one another but their identity was kept secret from those outside. The fugitive slave law of 1850 provided a penalty for harboring fugitives or aiding them to escape. For this reason it was necessary to keep those operations secret. Discovery would have been followed by arrest and punishment.

For many years Mr. Murray was one of the best known citizens in Elkhart county. Today he is all but forgotten. His former home is one of the historic spots in Elkhart county and it has been suggested that it should be marked which probably will be done at some time.

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