Many people have driven down Whetsel Avenue in Madisonville without realizing that the street was named for Henry B. Whetsel, an agent on the Underground Railroad.
Henry Bramble Whetsel was born in 1818. He was the grandson of Elon Bramble, a Revolutionary War veteran who came to what is now Madisonville in 1806 as one of the earliest white settlers.
Henry B. Whetsel married Sarah Spellman in 1841. In 1850, Henry was working as a farmer, and by 1860, he was working as a grocer. Sometime prior to 1867, Henry and Sarah Whetsel built a house, now gone, on what is now called Whetsel Avenue. It was at the northwest corner of Whetsel and Carothers Street (just south of 4725 Whetsel). It was a large home with a large barn in the rear.
The most notable thing about Henry B. Whetsel is that he was an Underground Railroad agent. The 1912 book Cincinnati, The Queen City tells us that Henry Whetsel “was one of the few men who, before the war, protected the run-away slaves and assisted in their conveyance to a point across the line of safety, sheltering many of them on his farm which was on the course of their journey.”
When the Civil War broke out, Henry B. Whetsel was already 43 years old. Yet when he joined the Union Army, in September 1861, his age was given on the enlistment papers as 34. It’s possible that this was a simple mistake. It’s also possible that Henry Whetsel was lying about his age to get into the army. While the upper age limit for enlistment was 45, and Whetsel wasn’t quite there yet, it’s also true that in the early phases of the war, older men were not as readily accepted into the army.
If Whetsel was lying, it worked. He entered the 54th Ohio Volunteer Infantry as a Private. He was promoted to Second Lieutenant, then First Lieutenant, then Captain. He was commended for gallant conduct at the Battle of Shiloh. He served until after the end of the war and retired as a Brevet Major in March 1866, after four and a half years in the service.
After the war, Henry B. Whetsel came back to Madisonville and ran a wholesale grocery business. He became a member of the Madisonville village council, Grand Master of the local Masonic lodge, president of the Madisonville Literary and Scientific Society, president of the Blaine Republican Club, president of the reunions committee of his regiment, and president of the Madison Building Association.
Henry B. Whetsel died in Madisonville on 29 December 1889, at around the age of 82. He is buried in Laurel Cemetery. His home was still standing in 1985, but it is now gone. A set of concrete stairs coming up from the sidewalk to a vacant lot marks the location.
Twenty-two years after Henry Whetsel died, the village of Madisonville was annexed by the City of Cincinnati. Some Madisonville streets had to be re-named because they duplicated the names of existing Cincinnati streets. So Madisonville’s Central Avenue became Whetsel Avenue.