Following the Path of Runaway Slaves in Southern Pennsylvania
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Within the seemingly prim and proper walls of old southern Pennsylvania homes, rebellion still simmers. It emanates from secret rooms inside rooms, false floors and openings that lead to escape tunnels carved into the earth. Throughout the early 1800s, many residents of the first state to outlaw slavery gave refuge to thousands of runaway slaves traveling north on the Underground Railroad, a trackless network of people who helped slaves flee bondage.
Many homes of these railroad "conductors" still stand, including a few that are now bed-and-breakfasts. Lancaster County is patterned with such escape routes, so I booked a room at the Across the Way Bed and Breakfast, drawn to the property for its Freedom Room, which sheltered 32 slaves over the years in a hidden space under the closet.
At the mansion, built in 1845 by Capt. William Fassitt, my second-floor room had an Underground Railroad theme, with antique lanterns (the sort freedom-seekers may have used to navigate at night) and apropos books, such as "Uncle Tom's Cabin." That night, in a quick search for the bathroom, I opened a door on the right wall and realized I'd found the closet. The call of nature could wait: I eagerly pulled open the wooden hatch in the floor, flipped a light switch and peered into the chilly "room" below. It was no more than four feet high and maybe 25 feet long. I knelt in silence, imagining the people who had huddled here in the dark more than a century before, perhaps listening to the clink of dishes and sounds of everyday life below, a reminder of a world out of their reach.
The house's history fascinates guests, innkeeper Karen Low told me the next morning. "You learn about the Underground Railroad in middle school, but not many people have actually seen a room that helped people get to freedom," she said. Low and her husband, Allan, are adding to the railroad experience in the adjacent carriage house, with an apartment that will likely open this summer. The basement there has a false floor with slats of wood that were lifted to access an escape tunnel.
Soon I was chugging northeast to another bed-and-breakfast, Longswamp, in the township of the same name. The stately home has a nearby cottage that was built around 1822 as a general store and post office but was also a safe house on the railroad. Innkeeper Jo Ann Swenson told me that a tunnel led from the basement of the main house to the general store, where you can still see an opening to a crawl space that links to the tunnel. Swenson scraped snow off the cover and yanked it open, revealing steps that disappeared into darkness. The tunnel is sealed off, but visitors can stay in the cottage's hideaway room, which may have sheltered runaways.
After Longswamp, I headed to Valley Forge and the Great Valley House, a B&B whose "old kitchen" dates from 1690, making it one of the oldest homes in the state. The residence was once connected via a tunnel to an unusually large food "keep" (enough to hold three or four cots), built as a hiding spot during the Revolutionary War. Owner Pattye Benson said stories have been passed down that runaways stayed in the keep, but as at many Underground Railroad sites, there's no way to know if the tales are true.
Next, I followed in the footsteps of runaways to Chester County, where I met local Quaker Mary Dugan at the Longwood Progressive Friends Meeting House. Now the Chester County Visitors Center, it was built in 1855 by radical Quakers who were disowned by their worship community. Over the years, the group attracted such activist luminaries as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and William Lloyd Garrison. Standing there, I pictured the room overflowing with talk of freedom for all men and women.
Dugan is opening a new Underground Railroad museum this year near Kennett Square, a borough once very active in the railroad. Her organization, the Kennett Underground Railroad Center, takes people on tours past houses that once sheltered freedom-seekers.
"We think [Kennett Square] should be the Underground Railroad capital of the U.S.," Dugan said. "It's all just right around us. You don't have to go to a national park or famous battlefield; it's . . . a voice from the past you can almost hear."
The new museum, at the Barnard House, the historic home of stationmasters Eusebius and Sarah Barnard, will include a smaller replica of a hidden room, local artifacts and interactive exhibits. Dugan plans to include a reproduction of a wooden crate that held escaped slave Henry Brown during his self-arranged shipment from Richmond to Philadelphia. He survived his journey with a few crackers and a bladder of water.
Back at home, I read historical articles on the railroad that Dugan had given me. One of them quoted Brown as a free man in 1849, explaining why he had mailed himself in a box: "If you have never been deprived of liberty as I was, you cannot realize the power of that hope of freedom."