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Underground Railroad at Wassonville

From The History of Washington County - 1880


The town was settled in 1839 and laid out March, 1848, it being one of the oldest towns in the county.  It was on the most popular route from Iowa City to Oskaloosa, and was the first station on the line of the underground railroad, laid out by Superintendent Woodin in 1856.

Much interest being aroused at Iowa City concerning the fate of Kansas during the slavery agitation, a public meeting was held at which several spirited speeches were made, but after the public meeting of a general character adjourned, a private meeting for special purposes met.  It was at this private meeting that the following address or commission was drawn up and placed in the hands of Mr. Woodin, who seems to have been chiefly instrumental in opening up a line of communication:

"To the friends of the Kansas Free State Cause in Iowa:"

"The undersigned have been appointed a committee to act in connection with similar committees appointed in Chicago, and in other States, and with committees of like character to be appointed in various counties of this State, and especially in those counties lying west and southwest of us."

"The plan of operation is the establishment of a direct route and speedy communication for emigrants into Kansas.  The committee have appointed Messrs. George D. Woodin, Esq., William Sanders and Captain S. N. Hartwell to visit your place for the purpose of having a committee appointed there to facilitate the general plan of operation and carry out the details.  They will explain to you the minutiae of this plan at greater length than we are able to do in this communication."

"Captain Hartwell is a member of the State legislature in Kansas, and is recently from the scene of the ruffian atrocities which have been committed in that embryo State."

"We have here pledged 'our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honors' to make Kansas a free State, and we shall expect our friends from this place westward will give us their hearty co-operation."

'Yours in the cause of Freedom, 

Iowa City, June 10, 1856"

W.P. Clark, Chairman
C.W. Hobart, Secretary
H.D. Downey, Treasurer
I.N. Jerome
Lyman Allen
J. Teasdale
M.L. Morris

As before remarked Mr. Woodin in particular was active and diligent in transacting the business delegated to him.  He made a complete tour of the counties lying in the proposed route of the "emigrants" and established committees.  He succeeded in enlisting in this enterprise the most active and reliable men in the various towns which he visited who were in sympathy with the movement.  Most of these men are still living, and many of them have since achieved a national reputation.  The following are the names of the individuals composing the committees at the various points along the route:

Wassonville - Isaac Farley, Myron Frisbee, N.G. Field
Sigourney - (names)
Oskaloosa- (names)
Knoxville - (names)
Indianola - (names)
Osceola - (names)
Quincy - (names)
Winterset - (names)
Des Moines - (names)
Newton - (names)

It was necessary to observe great caution and secrecy, as the administration was at that time in sympathy with the pro-slavery party and United States Marshals were on the lookout for armed bands on their way to Kansas from the north.  The underground railroad having been put into good running order, Superintendent Woodin and his station agents did quite a business in forwarding "emigrants" during the fall, winter and following spring and summer.

From The History of Washington County - 1880

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Feed Sack from Wassonville Mills

The old Wassonville Mill on the south side of the English River, the second mill that was constructed at Wassonville, Iowa.  This grist mill never had an external water wheel, but was built with a "mill race."  A steam plant was later added to turn the mill when the river was too low for grinding.  This mill was built in 1847 by Joseph Wasson and James Watters.   The first mill was built on the north bank of the river in 1841 and burned down in 1849, replaced by a saw mill.


Model of Wassonville Mill and original burrstone for grinding grain.  Courtesy Wellman Heritage Museum, 2005.