View Full Version : Underground Railroad

08-09-2007, 06:46 AM
A discussion on another thread (on quilts) got me thinking about what I consider one of the least understood, most mythologized aspects of antebellum America, the Underground Railroad.

I have harbored a suspicion for a long time that the Underground Railroad is the American equivalent of the French Resistance. That is, I believe that it was a very small organization which, once the fighting was all done and the results clear, "grew" exponentially in the popular mind.

A perfect example-- Try to think of a pre-1860 house north of the Mason-Dixon Line (and some south of it, I am sure) that DOESN'T claim that the root cellar/closet/storeroom was a hiding place for escaped slaves. My particular favorite in this realm is the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion in Norwalk, Connecticut. My tour guide proudly told us that the closet in the front hall was used for hiding escaped slaves. Date of the construction for the house? Begun in 1864, completed 1868.


If even a fair portion of these sites were truly used for helping fugitive slaves then I suppose the south would have been stripped of enslaved laborers long before hostilities were commenced.

I think the Underground Railroad loomed so large in our national conciousness because of residual guilt. Just as most Frenchmen did not actively oppose the Nazis during the occupation, most Americans did not actively assist in the flight of slaves in antebellum America.

This being my thought, can anyone recommend a good resource for me to consult to get some concrete numbers on the Underground Railroad? I am a bit gun-shy, as my hometown historical society undertook a study of local involvement in the Underground Railroad that ended up being a heady mix of lore, guesswork and wishful thinking.

08-09-2007, 07:23 AM
I totally agree. And there's the fixation on the word "underground," as if the hiding place or route had to somehow be connected with an underground area, or vice versa, that any underground area must have been part of the underground railroad. One other common stereotype is of the white conductor leading the slaves to freedom, when the free helper was as apt to be black.

Unfortunately, I don't know of any good books overall, since I've only been interested in research on a very small area. I live about an hour from Lawrence County, Ohio, which was a hotbed of UGRR activity. No, really! :)

What's funny is that there's no need to rely solely on post-war accounts or oral history. It's documentable from primary sources, right there in the newspaper:

December 16, 1860, Ironton Register

On Tuesday of last week, Deputy US Marshal Roadarnour, of Ironton, arrested a young man and woman, brother and sister fugitive slaves from Floyd Co, KY. The fugitives were under the guidance of Jim Ditcher, a free mulatto, who has lived about Ironton for several years, and as they were about to get aboard of the cars a Washington Switch, on the Scioto and Hocking Valley Railroad. Roadarmour, who was on board with the owner of the fugitives, laid hands on them, and took them back to Kentucky. Jim Ditcher made good his escape at "2:40 Time" and has not since been heard of hereabouts.

The mother of these fugitives left with them and remains in this county, the owner not choosing to take her back, on account of her advanced years. The reclaimed fugitives are cousins of the famous Polly Negroes, who right to freedom has been in litigation now for some ten years, between Ohio and Virginia.

When Jim Ditcher, the most well known local conductor, was interviewed post-war about his activities, that kind of contemporary newspaper account gives credibility.

Here's another contemporary account, this one with a white conductor:

December 27, 1855, Ironton Register
On Sunday night, the 16th inst., as we learn from the Maysville Eagle, seven slaves, three men, three women, and a child, left Millersburg, Bourbon Co., KY. under the charge of a white man, in the family carriage of their masters. They made their way toward Maysville, and in passing the toll-gates on the pike, the white man who drove, represented the inmates of the carriage as a runaway match bound for Aberdeen to get married. They left the carriage at Washington, four miles back of Maysville. About daylight two men on the Ohio shore getting out logs heard cries of distress from some one in the river; they took a skiff and went through the dense fog in the direction of the sound, and when near the KY shore found a bundle floating on the water, and a skiff bottom upwards, and on landing they found two of the Negro men who had swam ashore. It appeared that these two men, two of the women, and the child, had attempted to cross the river in the skiff, got lost in the fog, in the alarm upset the skiff, and the two women and the child were drowned. The two Negroes who swam ashore were taken to jail in Maysville, together with the other woman afterwards found. The white man and the other Negro man, a free Negro, made their escape.

I'd also be interested in a recommendation of a book that leans heavily on contemporary court cases, newspaper accounts, letters from slave owners, and other period documentation that's more impartial or biased against the UGRR, to corroborate the postwar oral history.

Hank Trent

08-09-2007, 07:57 AM
All the 1700s-1800s cellars, tunnels, and hiding places in my neighborhood for smuggled goods or "hiding from the indians."

08-09-2007, 08:31 AM
I once had a visitor to my historic site tell me that he had visited an underground railroad site and what amazed him is that you could still see the tracks in the tunnel! He was dead serious too.

Also at my facility there is an ongoing myth that there was a tunnel from the root cellar to the family cemetary a couple hundred yards away that was used to smuggle slaves out. When I hear that I always ask them two questions: This was a slave holding family so why were they smuggling slaves out? What good was a 200 yard tunnel when you still had hundreds of miles to go after you got out of it? People just don't think about what they say half the time and I am convinced that some folks going on vacation, take their brain out and leave it in a drawer at home for safekeeping while they are gone.

08-09-2007, 09:37 AM
I have harbored a suspicion for a long time that the Underground Railroad is the American equivalent of the French Resistance. That is, I believe that it was a very small organization which, once the fighting was all done and the results clear, "grew" exponentially in the popular mind.

Reminds me of the holocaust. People trying to help other people hid from the nazi's.

08-09-2007, 09:41 AM
Ah, the infamous "escape tunnels"! From 1986 to 2002 I worked in a series of 17th, 18th and 19th century buildings in several states. What these sites all shared, interestingly enough, was that visitors to each building SWORE to me that, at some time in the past, they had visited the building and "seen" the famous escape tunnel.

Nobody was ever clear on what exactly the inhabitants were escaping from, nor exactly where they were escaping to. Sometimes it was escaped slaves, other times it was to hide from hostile indians, and another was to get away from both pirates and the British (that must have been some neighborhood in the 18th century!)

I suppose that somewhere there really, truly is an old house with an escape tunnel, but I haven't seen it yet. I certainly never worked there.

08-09-2007, 09:45 AM
What about The holocaust. People trying to help other people hid from the nazi's.

One of the great, lingering shames of Mankind is that, when any form of injustice rears its ugly head, most otherwise good people do little or nothing to stop it.

A few good people served on the Underground Railroad, but most did not. A few good people worked to save their countrymen from the Holocaust, but most did not. A few good Frenchmen served in the Resistance, but most did not. It was ever thus, alas.

08-09-2007, 09:51 AM
One of the great, lingering shames of Mankind is that, when any form of injustice rears its ugly head, most otherwise good people do little or nothing to stop it.

A few good people served on the Underground Railroad, but most did not. A few good people worked to save their countrymen from the Holocaust, but most did not. A few good Frenchmen served in the Resistance, but most did not. It was ever thus, alas.
All to true

bill watson
08-09-2007, 10:13 AM
I cringe every time someone shows up at the newspaper office with "news" that they've discovered their newly bought property was a station on the Underground Railroad. Usually it's folks who don't know what a spring house is. Sometimes it's people who want some of the distinction to rub off on them 150 years later.

Hank, here's a twist. New Jersey, 1803. The sloop "Nancy" puts in at Egg Harbor, coming from Boston with four free black men as crew. It's owned by Reuben PItcher of Martha's Vineyard, and he's headed for Savannah, Ga. He tricked the black men into thinking they were going with him to get a job. When he put in at Egg Harbor to refit, he told his captain, Nicholas Booker, that he intended to make more stops and pick up more blacks, whom he intended to sell when he got to Savannah. When his plot became known to the black freemen, they ran way and locals helped round them up, thinking they were escaping slaves. Booker quit, not wanting any part of it, and authorities stepped in. They seized the "Nancy," forcing Pitcher to pay $70 to redeem the boat. And the blacks were freed from him and sent back to Boston.

That's recounted in "Freedom Not Far Distant," by Clement Alexander Price, billed as A Documentary History of Afro-Americans in New Jersey, 1980, and it's based on collections in the New Jersey Historical Society. Unfortunately I didn't jot down the cites when I read it, probably about 1985.

Meanwhile: it pays to be wary when reading sources hostile to things like the Underground Railroad; they can exaggerate, too, to mobilize opposition. It's entirely possible that's what was behind some of the accounts, on the other side, of the "heavily armed Negroes" in Lee's army in 1862, people on the abolitionist side of things exaggerating to bolster their own attempts to get the federal army to enlist blacks as fighters. (On the other hand, 35 years of newspaper work make me take just about everything with a boulder-size grain of salt.)

bill watson
08-09-2007, 10:23 AM
All the New Jersey thinking made me remember James Still and his brother, William. William wrote a book in 1872, the Underground Railroad, and it's 600 pages of anecdotes and narratives. In Medford the Stills are still strong medicine, with William described as one of the "founders" of the Underground Railroad. Book is a bit pricey, though. But it's close to the time things happened.


Not sure the second URL will work; there's a link on the first one to the book.

Probably helps to keep in mind that the Stills were located in southern New Jersey, which was heavily under Quaker influence, and therefore much more anti-slavery than the more populated northern part of the state. That's one of the themes in the previously mentioned book.

08-09-2007, 11:26 AM
reminds me of my neighbors house in missouri. it has a secret room in the attic... you have to go through the crawl through door, which gives you the attic, then you have to do several turns and then walk (and not fall) over some roof rafters, and there you see a room with an old straw mattress. currently there is no way to get to it, but its not a far jump down (but noone wants to chance the floor not holding!), also the rafters on the other side of the room are charred. anyways... the people who bought it figure it was from the underground railroad. i said theres no way. they said sure it was. i said no its not.. the house was built in 1915!!!! they were told when they bought the house that there was a secret room that was used to house the run away slaves during the civil war. i just laughed... obviously someone doesnt know when the civil war was!!

it would be interesting to figure out what that room was for though. i have the feeling there used to be a door that lead to it downstairs on the second floor and its been covered up somewhere. though we still have a hard time figuring out where the room is exactly in the house.. if that makes any sense. you take enough turns through the rafters it gets confusing. and it seems the whole house space is already taken up.

08-09-2007, 12:01 PM
Old houses often have strange, unexplained spaces in them. Or, to give the original builders credit, these houses have space that most modern people don't understand.

This leads me to disclose, for the first time in a forum such as this, My Secret Shame.

I was a first-year Park Ranger at Valley Forge National Park. One of my jobs was to lead walking tours of the grounds around Washington's Headquarters. In the Headquarters area were several other 18th century buildings and at least one 19th century eyesore (slated for demolition). This circa 1850 building "looked old" because it was in disrepair, and many people assumed that it was "more real" than the well-maintained 18th century buildings around it.

In the back yard of this building was a root cellar, rising perhaps 3 feet around the surrounding lawn. This was a constant source of questions from visitors (yes, most of them wanted to know if this was the "Famous Escape Tunnel"). I would politely inform them that it was a root cellar, that many of the houses in the area once had them, then try to get the group moving again.

One group, however, would not relent. "What is it REALLY?", they asked.

"A root cellar."


Finally, I had enough. It was hot, late in the day and I was dreaming of a cold beer and taking my shoes off.

"OK, you got me. We don't tell most people this, but THAT (pointing to the mound) is a grave!"

The crowd was suitably impressed. I decided to embellish.

"Not a human grave, however. Do you see this building over here (gesturing to the stables nearby)?"

"Was it for General Washington's horse?", one brave soul ventured.

"No," I intoned in a solemn and secretive fashion, "It is far stranger than that. You see, General Washington was given a special gift by the King of Siam-- a matched pair of war elephants."

The crowd gasped.

"One of the two, regrettably, perished on the long ocean journey. The other, Skippy, made it all through the Philadelphia Campaign before dying here at Valley Forge from lack of proper forage. Washington, touched by Skippy's devotion, had him buried here so that he could visit his grave each day."

Wide-eyed in wonder, one visitor glanced from the mound to me and said "Is all that TRUE?"

"No. That is a root cellar."

But he didn't believe me.

The NPS ran a bulldozer through house and root cellar in the 1990's, depriving the American people their rightful opportunity to pay homage to Skippy and his role in securing our treasured liberties...

08-09-2007, 12:08 PM
House of the Seven Gables, Salem Mass....

"...One of the most unique features of the House of the Seven Gables is a secret staircase discovered in the late 1800s that leads directly from the first to the third floor. Beside the fireplace in the formal dining room is a small arched door that leads to a closet-like room where wood for the fire would be stored. The back of this room had a rough wood wall that swings open to reveal the steep, narrow stairway. No one knows why the stairway exists, one theory is that it was built by the original owner's son and was used by servants to get to their living quarters in the attic."

"The more intriguing was that it may have been used by Suzannah Ingersoll to hide runaway slaves on the underground railroad..."

08-09-2007, 02:00 PM
You see, General Washington was given a special gift by the King of Siam-- a matched pair of war elephants."

Hah! I would have had you right there! I've seen "The King and I", and I know the king of Siam sent those elephants to Lincoln, not Washington! :D

08-09-2007, 02:14 PM
Good thing you weren't on that tour. You would have spoiled my most vivid memory of government service!

08-10-2007, 09:57 AM

Jackson Homestead Newton Massachusetts

"...Other evidence corroborates Ellen’s reminiscence. An 1893 letter from William I. Bowditch (1819-1909), the conductor mentioned in Ellen’s account above, to Wilbur H. Seibert, author of The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898), provides this evidence. Bowditch’s letter is preserved in the W. H. Siebert papers at the Ohio Historical Society. In this letter Bowditch was answering some of Seibert’s questions as the author was preparing his book. Bowditch wrote:
We had no regular route and no regular station in Massachusetts. I have had several fugitives in my house. Generally I passed them on [to] Wm. Jackson at Newton. His house being on the Worcester Railroad, he could easily forward any one.
The letter is referenced in a footnote on page 132 of The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom. Bowditch, whose Brookline home is also on the National Underground Railroad Network the Freedom, is known to have harbored William and Ellen Craft, Henry "Box" Brown, as well as other freedom seekers...."



Category:Underground Railroad locations

No, I'm not recommending wikipedia as a primary source.

08-10-2007, 10:44 AM
May I humbly suggest the following National Geographic web page as a starting point. There are some good first-person accounts listed there. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/railroad/randl.html

I might also suggest perusing the newspapers of Milwaukee, Racine and Waukesha, WI, around March 11 of 1854, when runaway slave Joshua Glover was busted out of jail by a large mob of abolitionists, white and black. (Including newspaper editor Sherman Booth, who, when residing on the East Coast, was involved in assisting the captives from the Amistad.) A recently released, well researched book on this episode and Mr. Glover's escape/life afterward is, "Finding Freedom: The Untold Story of Joshua Glover, Runaway Slave", by Ruby West Jackson & Walter McDonald and published by WHS Press (Wisconsin Historical Society). Web page:

Another documented & interesting episode is the 1842 escape of Caroline Quarlls. Synopsis & links at http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/topics/undergroundrr/

Hope these are useful.

08-10-2007, 11:33 AM
Many thanks for the recommendations! I shall start digging through your suggested resources tonight.

The Underground Railroad is such a fascinating topic that it deserves far better exposure than it has ever gotten. Instead, all too often, it gets spun into a feel-good fairy tale almost totally unconnected to documented history. This leads in turn to cynicism, since it becomes almost a joke that every pre-1865 structure (and, as I mentioned above, some post-1865) claims to have been a "station" on the Underground Railroad. It has become the 19th century equivalent of "Washington Slept Here."

I have been visiting historic sites for most of my life. Of those I have visited, I would conservatively estimate that between 75 and 100 claimed to be part of the Underground Railroad (4 in my hometown, forsooth!). To date, my research has not turned up one piece of concrete documentation connecting a single one of these buildings to the UR.

It will be refreshing to sink my teeth into some facts for a change.

08-10-2007, 08:47 PM
Maysville Ky is a river town. Located on the banks of the Ohio River, it is a hotspot for UGRR activity. The community of Washington lays about 4-5 miles outside of Maysville. It is reported that Harriett Beecher Stowe got inspiration to write her book while in Washington visiting relatives. She supposedly witnessed a slave auction. Couple that with a river town so close to freedom and the stories are thick. When I was a kid, I spent my summers working on my grandfather’s horse farm (in Mason County). My grandmother told me stories that she had heard as a kid and would point out the houses in and around town that were reported to have been used as stops on the UGRR. While I am sure there were some houses in the area, I doubt as many as she had been told. It was also a station back before statehood. The “fort” had an old cellar that was used to hide from Indians during raids (according to local legend it was used as a stop on the UGRR later on).

I will have to search through some of mom’s stuff, but I had a list from the local sheriff who had captured runaways in Mason County. I also have a picture of the jail that was originally erected to house blacks during the period.

As far as secret rooms…I know some of you have seen Radio. The talk about a mentally challenged youth who was held under the porch isn’t as rare as you may think. Back in the day it was rare to send a family member off to an institution, instead they were kept in the attic or cellar. Usually they were kept away from site because it was an embarrassment to the family. The “challenged” was rarely if ever in contact with very many people at all other than for food. When I was a kid in the early 70’s the folks down the road had a challenged son, he was in his 40’s then. He lived in a chicken coop (with chickens) while his parents (in their 70’s) lived up the hill in the house. My parents, one a social worker the other a teacher, made inquiries. Basically, he was in good health and an adult, not much you could do. When we later moved, our new landlord had taken in his niece who had Down’s. They had no children of their own and raised her as a daughter. But she was sent by her parents out to the country to be hidden away (this was late 70’s). I think that a lot of these “secret” rooms could have been used for anything, and my Radio example is just one of many probabilities.

My brother just bought a 170 year old house, well part of it (a very small part) and guess what, the basement has a secret room! We both think it was probably used to…..make booze during prohibition. Although he has been turning up a lot of very old silver spoons on the hill behind the house…..could it have been payment for the use of the UGRR or perhaps hidden for fear that Morgan’s Raiders were coming, they did come within about 30 miles. But we both agree you could build a good size still and there is a spring that flows about a foot away from the secret room.

Give us an inch and we will make our own history, give us that foot of wall and some copper tubing and we will make our own……

08-12-2007, 04:58 PM
Sorry, I forget where I read this I think it might have been in a newspaper article. I read that some of those tunnels were used for slaves to move around the houses without being seen or lead to the kitchen...which in older houses, we all know, is not attached to the main house in case of a fire. I found a similar link.


08-12-2007, 09:09 PM
Harriet Tubman lived her last years in a home in Auburn, NY -- which was also the home town of William Seward, and if memory serves, he was instrumental in helping her settlle there.

When she died, she willed the house and land to the local AME church and they sometimes give tours. It's a very small wood frame house with about four rooms downstairs and 3-4 upstairs.

One of the things that they said was that in homes that had been used for the Underground Railroad, there were often several doors on the ground floor. Harriet's home has seven outside doors on the first floor. The idea being that someone could delay a bit at the front door and give anyone who needed to get out time to hightail it to the treeline on the other side of the house.

Of course, a window would serve the same purpose if you really wanted to get away.

I don't think Mrs. Tubman lived there before the war, but it did make me think about whether she was concerned about repercussions from people who felt that she'd made off with their slaves and who came looking for her in later years.

I've read the story of the time the Alcott family in Concord got pressed into service hiding a fugitive slave -- the usual conductor was tied up or out of town, and at one point they thought that the authorities might have come, so they hid him in the kitchen stove (it was summer and they weren't using it).

I've also heard that Henry David Thoreau was a conductor. It would make sense, because Concord was on the regular railroad and if ever there was a town that would be Abolition Central, it surely was Concord, MA.

I've got several other first person accounts that sound credible about people's experiences -- most of them tell of helping to gather clothing to outfit someone or having a regular routine, etc. Others are "this one night I had to help with the UGRR...."

I think there were regular helpers, and others who got sort of "drafted" for a "one time only" help when the traffic increased or the regular conductor or regular route were tied up or unavailable.

There are several towns in Ontario that were founded by fugitive slaves -- they might have historical socieities with interesting information in them. I think one was St. Catherine's, Ontario.

Karin Timour
Period Knitting -- Socks, Sleeping Hats, Balaclavas
Come see me at September Storm -- I'll have the sock line with me.
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