Saline, Michigan: A Stop on the Underground Railroad

 01/19/2015 - 01:07

The Harwood farmhouse in Pittsfield Township is 180 years old. William Harwood sheltered escaped slaves in a secret part of his basement. Asher Aray transported them east. 

“Liberty to the fugitive captive and the oppressed over the earth, both male and female of all colors,” read the prominent sign posted on Captain John Lowry’s Lodi property that was said to be “high enough for a hay wagon to pass under.”

Lowry lived at what in the 19th century was called Nutting’s Corners, the corner of Ann Arbor Saline Road and Textile. His former homestead is now occupied by Lodi Country Estates. His grave is in Lodi Cemetery.


His home was a station on the Underground Railroad, a loose network of places of refuge that escaped slaves used on the path to Canada and freedom. Lowry was considered eccentric and radical. He and neighbors Sellick Wood, Timothy Hunt, and Eli and Ann Benton were ardent abolitionists and both Lowry and Wood helped transport slaves to Detroit.   

“The oppressed bloodhound-hunted children of our common father often found rest and comfort in Capt. L.’s well-stored home, where much money and clothing were given to supply the wants of the escaped slaves, feeling it was far better to please God than man,” stated “History of Washtenaw County, Michigan,” Chapman, 1881.

Washtenaw County was an important link on the Underground Railroad. Pathways from the west and from the south passed through the county on the way to “Midnight,” the code name for Detroit. Upon arrival in Detroit, Underground Railroad conductors rowed fugitives across the Detroit River to Canada.

This was dangerous business. U.S law required that escaped slaves be returned to their masters. The Fugitive Sale Act of 1850 strengthened these requirements, imposing severe penalties for failure to comply.

Nevertheless, there were people in Michigan and elsewhere, who believed that slavery was immoral. Some dared to speak out.

Reverend John Kanouse settled in Saline in 1831 and organized the Presbyterian Church of Saline. For the first 10 years the church met in homes. Kanouse was criticized for sermons that were too political. He departed after 12 years, but he left a legacy of abolitionist sentiment.

Further to the east, on U.S. 12, near Campbell Road, in Pittsfield Township, William Harwood and Asher Aray were, like Lowry, active with the Underground Railroad. Roswell Preston, Jr., another abolitionist neighbor, also helped. Harwood sheltered escaped slaves in a secret part of his basement and Aray transported them east.

It was said of Aray, “he was an efficient “employe” of the Underground Railroad and always kept a wagon in his stable for the express purpose of conveying the fugitive slaves to the borders of Canada,” as cited in “History of Washtenaw County, Michigan.”

In 1853, a group of 29 men, women and an infant came up through Ohio to Pittsfield near dawn. Aray and his wife Catherine fed and sheltered them during the day and nightfall he transported them to Detroit.

The graves of the Arays and the Harwoods may be found in a small cemetery not far from the Harwood house. Jan Harwood, great great granddaughter of William Harwood, lives at the house.


Other persons and other sites in Saline played a part in the Underground Railroad. In the case of alleged stations, solid confirmation is often lacking. One cannot expect good historical records on an activity that was, at the time, illegal.


Additional houses in the Saline area that have been suggested to have been stations on the underground railroad include the Italianate house at 7443 E. Michigan Ave., The Southerland Wilson farmstead at 797 Textile, the Orin Parsons house on Mooreville Road and Orange Risdon’s house, now located at 210 W. Henry Street.

More information on the Underground Railroad in this area can be found in two books by Carol E. Mull. One book, “The Underground Railroad in Michigan,” provides a look at activities across the state. A more focused study, “Crossroads Of Freedom: The Underground Railroad In The Saline, MI Area,” was written by Mull with Susan Kosky and a group of assistants. Both are available at Saline District Library.

The region can take some pride that a few brave citizens stood for justice in a time when owning another person was often considered normative. But this is just the white contribution to what is ultimately a black story.

Escaping slaves faced unimaginable hardships in their flight to freedom. Although white helpers risked fines and possible jail time, the fugitives were in constant fear of torture and death. Making it to Michigan is a testimony to their courage and endurance.

Partly as a consequence of having passed through the area, black people came to know the area and some moved back after the Civil War. Others came, drawn by economic opportunities. Black people have had an important role in our city’s history.

Robert Conradi
Bob Conradi Is a retired pharmaceutical scientist who has redefined himself as a photographer and journalist. He has lived in Michigan for 36 years and in the Saline area for 10. He enjoys researching and learning about new ideas. Follow him on Twitter at @RobertConradi.