Archived Story

Bonine house purchased by newly-formed history group

Published 9:35am Friday, October 16, 2009

VANDALIA – The public is invited to a meeting taking place at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 21, at Vandalia Village Hall.

At the meeting, a newly-formed organization, the Underground Railroad Society of Cass County Inc., (URSCC), is making a major announcement regarding the acquisition and preservation of the historic 1840s James E. Bonine residence and carriage house in Vandalia.

URSCC is presenting options for restoration and funding of the properties.

The historical significance of the Bonine residence, named for the family who built the home, is that the Bonines, who first settled in Cass County in 1843, were ardent abolitionists.

Like many of their neighbors, they played a significant role in the Underground Railroad movement that assisted fugitive slaves escaping from the South to Canada.

Politicians in Washington, D.C., often referred to Cass County as “that hot bed of abolitionism.”

The area surrounding Vandalia was unique for several reasons.

First, it was the junction of two main Underground Railroad routes, the Illinois and Quaker lines.

Also, it is the only known example of land being set aside for a settlement for fugitive slaves.

“Ramp Town” and the surrounding township was well known for its large population of free blacks and fugitive slaves, numbering nearly 1,500 just before 1860.

Although originally heading for Canada in their escape from the South, many fugitive slaves felt they had reached a place of safety when they arrived at Ramp Town and, therefore, ended their journey there.

Many Underground Railroad sites have long since disappeared.
The James E. Bonine residence and carriage house are the most visible reminders in Cass County – arguably southwest Michigan – of that pre-Civil War period.

The residents of this area of all races and creeds played a unique role in this great debate when America was struggling with its conscience over the question of slavery.

They influenced the course of national history by promoting the abolition of slavery, the pursuit of personal liberty and the evolution of civil rights.

In addition to the family’s role in the Underground Railroad, the home is one of the best examples of American domestic architecture in southwestern Michigan and northern Indiana.

Due to decades of neglect, this historic site is at significant risk.

Without the public’s immediate help, this historic property may be lost forever.

The Underground Railroad Society of Cass County Inc., is seeking assistance and support to acquire, stabilize and preserve the structures so a learning center can be created.

The center, it is hoped, will become a focal point for educating about the role that the abolitionists and the African-American communities played in the Underground Railroad and, in turn, will become a significant cultural-tourism destination.

For information, call President Dave Bainbridge at (574) 235-9664, ext. 254, or Carol Bainbridge at (269) 683-4702.

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