Sunday, February 5, 2017

Grandfather Was An Underground Railroad Station Agent

In the summer of 1929, an aging Iowa farm house was torn down to make way for a gas station. As the demolition crew began their work, they uncovered secrets that revealed the home's historical significance in one of American history's darkest chapters.

Dismantling the property, workmen discovered secret chambers beneath the house that were used to hide men and women escaping southern slavery for freedom in the north.

Upon the discovery, a journalist wrote that there were long "obscure legends in Indianola about the house," which was now proven to be "one of the most important links in the underground railroad system."

Between March 15, 1852 and 1864, Mahlon Stanton Haworth, owned, lived, and farmed on the property located in Indianola, Iowa.

A Man of Conviction
Mahlon, my fifth great-grandfather, was born in Ohio and raised in a Quaker family with strong anti-slavery views. The Quakers were ardent abolitionists who were among the first to "fully condemn slavery as both ethically and religiously wrong in all circumstances."

While he agreed with the Quaker party line on politics, matters of the heart were different. In January 1829, a Quaker meeting was convened in Vermillion, Indiana (where Mahlon lived at the time). Meeting records reveal that he was "disowned" for "marrying contrary to the faith." Evidently, my fifth great-grandmother, Mary Hockett, was not a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and was unwilling to convert.

Mahlon's excommunication didn't prevent him from pursuing the marriage and creating a family with Mary. Eventually, they moved to Iowa where they settled and were welcomed into that area's Quaker community.

Family lore suggests that in Iowa, Mahlon was an outspoken abolitionist who vocally espoused his faith's objection to slavery. However, there is no existing documentation of him confiding his work as a station agent aiding slaves escaping to freedom. The home would have to speak for itself.

A Home's Secret
Writing in the Des Moines Sunday Register on August 4, 1929, a week after Maholn's home was demolished, journalist George Shane described the property's secret hiding places:

"The basement was divided into two compartments - one of them a secret chamber... Entrance was made through a trap door. The opening was hidden by rugs on the floor above. No pursuing federal officer would have suspected the hiding place of slaves - in fact, from the outside, the rear part of the dwelling that covered the room seemed to have no basement."

Mahlon Haworth's home (diagram created by author based on 1929 sketch from real life)

In his article, Shane included a sketch of Mahlon's property, which I've updated in my own illustration above for copyright purposes. The lower quadrants of the home depict the secret chambers.

Shane wrote, "Slaves would enter room marked A and climb down ladder to subterranean chamber labeled C, where they would hide with minimum danger of discovery. Section of basement marked D is walled off from other portion, with no connection except a tunnel between the partitions. The tunnel provided a second exit in case raiders were to find the upper trap door and come down the ladder. Entering the tunnel in the hollow partitions, which extended around part of cellar marked D, the slaves could make a getaway through an exit on the opposite side of the building. Room labeled B was the Hayworth (sic.) parlor."

The Underground Railroad in Iowa
The Underground Railroad's exact path to and from Indianola was unclear because, as Shane noted, Mahlon "kept no schedules of arrivals and departures." It's speculated that men and women escaping slavery came to Iowa from Missouri on their way north. Mahlon's station may have been a final stop before Des Moines.

The Underground Railroad (public domain)

The Iowa Freedom Trail Project conducted by the State Historical Society of Iowa concluded that, "Haworth did his work as a UGRR station agent so effectively that neither he nor Mary (who certainly had to be involved although there is no known documentation) never got caught by slave catchers or federal marshals or even had his house searched... because Haworth kept his secret so well, there are no documented connections between him and other UGRR participants."

Abolitionist Views
Abolitionist views were one thing, but serving as a station agent on the Underground Railroad carried severe consequences. According to Shane, people convicted of providing assistance, "could have been sent to prison for six months and fined $1,000 under the federal fugitive slave law."

While the number of lives Mahlon may have helped save are lost to history, it's a remarkable legacy to leave - having the courage of your convictions and quietly working to help human beings escape unimaginable tragedy. It's a legacy in which I take great pride.

Mahlon Haworth's grave in Cuba, Kansas
(Photo by author)


  1. What a great story! Absolutely love it. Seems like your 5th great grandfather was a man who followed his heart and did what was right despite the potential consequences. You must be so proud!

    1. Funny how that works for our ancestors who we never met, but I really am kind of proud. All indications were that he was a man of conviction.

  2. You should be very proud. And glad you brought his story to light. Many people do not realize that those who were on the Underground Railroad risked fines and imprisonment.

    1. Indeed I am very proud. Honestly, I didn't even realize - before researching this story - what the penalties were for playing a role in the Underground Railroad. Just another example of how genealogy can provide a real education about history in general.