Wisconsin Magazine of History

The Milton House and the Underground Railroad

In the wake of the Black Hawk War of 1832, many eastern white settlers traversed the fertile land of southern Wisconsin that French fur traders referred to as “Prairie du Lac” or “Prairie of the Lake.” Soldiers from that war spread word back east about a land replete with lakes, thick prairie grasses, and abundant oak groves in what was then part of the sprawling Michigan Territory.1 Hearing the siren call of that land was Joseph Goodrich, a thirty-eight-year-old Seventh Day Baptist innkeeper and social reformer from western New York. In 1838, Goodrich and two companions boarded a steamship on Lake Erie that carried them to the western shores of Lake Michigan and the port city of Milwaukee. The men walked sixty miles west to where the militia trail of General Henry Atkinson’s 1,200 soldiers could still be viewed where it crossed a well-worn Native American trail, just south of the Quaskeenon (Koshkonong) marshland.2 At that crossing, Goodrich constructed a unique inn that still stands 175 years later as one of the few remaining relics of the Du Lac Prairie.

The Milton House stagecoach inn, completed in 1844 just four years prior to Wisconsin statehood, became the anchor of the new community Goodrich platted and named for the English poet. What most people in the burgeoning community of Milton didn’t know was that Goodrich had built the inn with another, secret purpose in mind: aiding people escaping slavery in their quest for freedom. Today the Milton House Museum is the only site in Wisconsin authenticated by the National Network of Freedom as having had Underground Railroad activity.3

In the late 1830s, Goodrich was just one of many homesteaders from the eastern states, particularly New York, to settle the Wisconsin Territory. Many of these settlers came west with the conviction of a cavalry charge, spreading their zeal for abolitionism, temperance, and other social reforms.4 Goodrich made the journey west in search of land to develop and a new life to build, predicated on his own evangelical fervor for temperance, formal education, and the abolition of slavery. After bringing to the prairie his wife, Nancy, and teenaged children, Ezra and Jane, along with nine other friends and relatives, Goodrich started building the Milton House, an architectural marvel of its day, created from the plentiful lime gravel of the region. It was to this curious hexagon-shaped inn that he attached a long, rectangular business block and tenement complex that soon became one of the most recognizable structures on the Du Lac Prairie.

Today, the Milton House is Rock County’s only National Historic Landmark. Its Underground Railroad history is shared with more than 12,000 tourists annually. From the beginning of its construction, Goodrich planned to use his inn to He dug a tunnel from the cabin located behind the building to the inn’s root cellar, providing an opening in the basement’s foundation. The forty-five-foot-long passageway connecting the buildings was about three-and-a-half to four feet in height, meaning an adult would have to crawl from the cabin into the basement. Goodrich and his collaborators brought fugitives to the cabin, where they could drop into the tunnel through a root cellar and crawl its length to the basement of the inn. Hidden in the inn’s basement, freedom seekers could be fed and harbored until the journey’s next leg. According to an 1866 article in the , the newspaper of the Seventh Day Baptist denomination, Joseph’s younger brother William Anson Goodrich “was credited with conducting runaways along the Underground Railroad thru part of Illinois to his brother Joseph’s home in Milton, Wisconsin.” From the Milton House, fugitives could continue an eastward journey toward Lake Michigan, either to the Racine Harbor or other points of embarkation along the lake’s shore.

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