Loudoun and Frederick farms linked by Underground Railroad

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Two farms 30 miles apart, Huntland in Loudoun County and Cooling Springs in Frederick County, Md., share an important role in African American history. For decades before and during the Civil War, they were stations on the Underground Railroad, a name that became popular for routes taken by escaping slaves after railroads became common in the late 1840s.

At Cooling Springs, the escape route was, coincidentally, along a railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, the first major railroad line in the United States. Its track bisected the farm in 1831. At Huntland, the escape route was through an underground tunnel.

Through Loudoun and Frederick, its northern neighbor, more than 1,000 slaves trekked to seek freedom in Northern states and Canada.

It was a crime to help an escaping slave until the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act was repealed in June 1864, during the closing stages of the Civil War. Even after the war, escapes in the Piedmont were not talked about publicly. Memories that divide might best be forgotten, and so the location of safe houses has been passed on by oral tradition.

From Huntland, north of Middleburg, to Cooling Springs, across the Potomac in Frederick County, the journey for escaping slaves took two to three days, after which the escapees were 30 miles from presumed safety in Pennsylvania. In 1847, that state prohibited the enforcement of federal laws that ensured the return of fugitive slaves.

Even before 1847, Pennsylvania and other Northern states did not enforce laws involving fugitive slaves. The many Brethren, Mennonites and Quakers in Pennsylvania, among others, all anti-slavery, provided the connecting links to abolitionist havens in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.

Still, uncertainty about whether Pennsylvania law trumped federal law led many fugitives to seek sanctuary in Canada. In 1826, its parliament enacted a law prohibiting the return of fugitive slaves to owners, and in 1833, Canada abolished slavery.

Huntland's role as a safe stop in the Underground Railroad had eluded my mind for decades. Then, in the fall, my history class of Loudoun County teachers visited the estate. While farm manager Jerry Coxey was talking to our group, my mind wandered, revisiting a scene of a generation past.

A caretaker had told me about a pre-Civil War tunnel beneath the iron gate in the serpentine brick wall bordering the front lawn. The tunnel ended in the east wing of the house. She told me that escaping slaves used the passageway. However, she said, the tunnel had recently been blocked off. Later, I saw a snip of paper in the Huntland file at the Thomas Balch Library. Someone had scribbled on it, "said to have been a way station for runaway slaves."

Brothers George and Herman Brown owned Huntland in the 1950s and '60s. Since Lyndon B. Johnson's days as U.S. Senate majority leader and vice president, the Browns, Texas oilmen, had hosted Johnson at the Huntland house. In 1955, Johnson suffered a heart attack at Huntland, and Middleburg physician James "Jimmy" Gibson was the first medical professional on the scene.

In 1964 or '65, when Johnson was president, the Secret Service decided it would be best to seal off the tunnel and fill it in, especially because the entrance at the brick wall was on Pot House Road and difficult to observe from the estate house and grounds.

Before 1912, when the wings of Huntland were added, the interior end of the tunnel ended on a grassy down slope. Anyone exiting the passage could not be seen from the road. Escapees then hid in outbuildings, where the smells of animals and feed masked the odor of humans.

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