Joseph Bartlett and the Washington Street Stop on the Underground Railroad

When Joseph Bartlett came to South Bend in 1837, he already knew his name would be remembered beyond his own life. When the city’s Bartlett Street was later named after him, it wouldn’t be the first road to carry the Bartlett legacy, and it wouldn’t be the most important one either.

That’s because Joseph Bartlett was a descendant of Josiah Bartlett, signer of the Declaration of Independence and first governor of New Hampshire. According to the canon of The West Wing, that also means that South Bend’s Joseph Bartlett is related to fictional President Jed Bartlet, portrayed in that television show by Martin Sheen.

Aaron Helman

Joseph Bartlett might not have been as famous as his revolutionary antecedent or his fictional descendant, but he was no slouch either. Joseph (and his wife Elizabeth) arrived in South Bend for good in 1838, opening a bakery near the corner of Washington and Michigan Streets. For their first years in the city, they lived on the building’s second floor. Their bakery gained a reputation for putting out the finest gingerbread in town, but when they invested in bringing the first cracker press to the area, that’s when they really turned the young city on its head.

It might seem like a small innovation now, but freeing the cracker from the exclusive clutches of East Coast elites brought customers to Bartlett’s bakery in bunches. One has to imagine it was a boon for the local soup industry as well. But most of all it was a boon for the Bartletts. The democratization of the Midwestern cracker had the wonderful effect of crowning Joseph Bartlett the region’s first culinary king.

His bakery grew into a grocery, and Bartlett was recognized as one of the city’s finest merchants and most important citizens. Maybe it was his famous name or maybe it was the gingerbread and crackers, but by the 1850s, Bartlett began to appear on committees and in meetings with South Bend’s earliest elites. It was at about this time that the Bartletts moved from the second floor of their bakery into a stately and historic home that’s still standing today.

In the aftermath of the failed Kankakee Mill Race, Alexis Coquillard was forced to declare bankruptcy and to yield enormous swaths of his land west of downtown South Bend. The bank divided the land and listed the plots at bargain prices, eager to recoup their investment losses. Joseph Bartlett was the first to seize the opportunity, grabbing the spot at 720 West Washington, originating the West Washington neighborhood, and building the first brick house in South Bend.

It’s at exactly this point that Joseph Bartlett’s life was about to become much, much more interesting.

The historic Bartlett home at 720 West Washington Street

At just about the same time that the Bartlett estate was complete, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book was a sensation across the nation and across South Bend. Elizabeth Bartlett hosted very public book clubs and began the work of very publicly raising money to support the efforts of the Underground Railroad. Joseph Bartlett began to associate with other notable abolitionists like Solomon Palmer and Almond Bugbee. Years later, his children would point out correctly that the Bartletts often helped escaped slaves, which led to the birth of the historic rumor that labelled the Bartlett house a stop on the Underground Railroad.

But it probably wasn’t.

For as much aid, compassion, and funding as the Bartletts had for escaped enslaved people, it’s most likely that they never harbored runaways in their own home.

That’s because they had somewhere better.

They had a bakery.

James Washington

After the Bartletts stopped living above their downtown bakery, they rented the second floor of the place to a tenant, a barber named James Washington. Washington was a free Black man and a known stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. When the Bartletts raised money for the cause, they funneled their dollars through Washington. And when escaped slaves needed a place to duck for the night, they funneled them through Washington too. Fugitives often camped out in the grocery and were likely free to take with them the food and provisions they needed to complete their journey.

It goes without saying that South Bend’s Washington Street is not named after James Washington, but it certainly could be. The amount of guile, bravery and confidence needed to run an Underground Railroad stop in the middle of the city is almost impossible to imagine.

As for the Bartletts, it seems that their support for the abolition cause was something of an open secret in the community, if it was a secret at all. By all accounts, Joseph Bartlett knew what was right and was unwavering in his commitment to it. His 1873 obituary remembered that “in matters which involved principle, he was as unyielding as the granite hills of his native state.”

Today’s Bartlett Street carves a short path just north of Memorial Hospital and cuts directly through some of the real estate that Joseph Bartlett was able to buy with his baker’s bounty of cracker cash. Joseph Bartlett is buried in the City Cemetery.

Aaron Helman is an author, adventurer and historian from South Bend. He is a proud graduate of LaSalle High School. Print and digital versions of his books are available at