Area Homes Harbored Fleeing Slaves

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Byline: Ivy Bartholomew Daily Herald Staff Writer

The Underground Railroad, the link to hope and freedom for more than 4 million slaves, began quietly in the South more than 150 years ago.

Historians do not know how many slaves escaped and who helped them, but they estimate 60,000 slaves ran to free states on the route between 1830 and 1860.

Some of the fugitive slaves passed through McHenry County on their flight to freedom, said Gloria Urch, an Underground Railroad researcher, lecturer and writer.

"Before 1850, Chicago was a big center for the Underground Railroad, because slaves would get on boats to go to Kenosha," Urch said. "But, after 1850, laws became more restrictive, and 'slavenappers' would wait in Chicago to return runaways to their owners or to resell them. It wasn't wise to go there, so routes west of Chicago got popular."

One of these routes led to Milton, Wis., straight through McHenry County, she said. Several McHenry County houses, many still standing, have been marked as depots, or stops, on the railroad's path to Milton.

The Windhill Farm, along Greenwood Road in Woodstock, was built by John James in 1850. It acted as a depot for fugitive slaves traveling to Milton.

James, dubbed "an overseer of the poor," built a secret room in his basement to harbor slaves during daylight hours, Urch said.

"The room was obviously installed for secrecy of some kind," she said. "You would not know it was there. A trap door in the kitchen led to the secret room."

The farm's position in relation to Milton, its secluded location on 120 acres of farmland and its secret room lead historians to believe James was involved with abolitionists, Urch said.

Another home that acted as an Underground Railroad depot in McHenry County is the Terwilliger House in Woodstock. …