History

Imagining a Route to Freedom Aboard the Underground Railroad

February 25, 2021 | by Kimberly Haas

There are Underground Railroad sites in many states, down into the deep South and far into the Midwest. But the Mid-Atlantic region boasts an especially large number of preserved sites and documented history, reflecting a robust Underground Railroad network from the early 19th century into the Civil War. It can be attributed to a confluence of geography and politics, where the free state of Pennsylvania bordered the slave state of Maryland.

Because it is used to portray a boundary between the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War, the portion of the Mason-Dixon Line that usually springs to mind is this east-west border between Pennsylvania and Maryland. The Mason-Dixon Line is much older, however. It was surveyed in the 1760s to resolve a border dispute among those two states and Delaware, owing to conflicting grants made by King Charles I to Lord Baltimore and that from his son Charles II to William Penn. So when the demarcation reaches the point where Pennsylvania and Maryland meet Delaware, it turns 90 degrees and runs south along the border between Maryland and Delaware.

A plan from 1768 of what would become the Mason-Dixon Line. The survey was conducted by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon with contributions from James Smither and Philadelphia publisher Robert Kennedy. | Image: Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress 

Delaware had a conflicted relationship to slavery. Relative to its small size, it was more agricultural than the states to the north, so slavery played a role in its economy. But Delaware’s farms were often smaller operations than the plantations of states to its south and west. Many Delaware farmers owned few or no slaves. “In 1860, roughly 1,800 Blacks were enslaved in Delaware, compared to around 20,000 who were free,” noted Ashley Cloud, executive director of the Quaker Hill Historic Preservation Foundation in Wilmington.

Delaware, Chester County, and Philadelphia have a number of Underground Railroad sites that are well preserved. They form an admittedly incomplete picture, partly owing to the necessary secrecy of the aid that was being provided. Also, preservation often favors large and noteworthy properties, overlooking more modest sites, as well as people whose actions weren’t connected to a particular address.

Despite these gaps, we can imagine one of the routes that freedom seekers could have taken.

Such a journey could begin in Church Creek on the eastern shore of Maryland, home today to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and National Historical Park. From there, the destination would be Delaware. “We were referred to as ‘the last stop to freedom,’” said Cloud.

But the journey through Delaware was as perilous as crossing through Maryland. “We’re a small state, and there was a tension between New Castle County in the north, home to Wilmington, which was more like other cities in the northeast, and the two rural, agrarian counties in the south,” she explained. As freedom seekers followed State Route 10 to Camden, the hazards included roving slave hunters, local anti-abolitionists, and lack of cover in the flat, open farm fields.

The Camden Friends Meetinghouse at 122 E. Camden-Wyoming Avenue in Camden, Delaware. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In Camden, the Friends Meetinghouse is a known station that still exists today. Built in 1805, its gambrel roof is atypical of most meetinghouses. The meeting records show that two members, Warner Mifflin and John Hunn, were well-known abolitionists.

From there, a 27-mile journey up the King’s Highway, a postal road dating back to 1762 and now State Route 13, would bring you into New Castle County. On foot, that could take nine or more hours, so it is likely there were more stops along the way. Here, the town of Odessa has two sites, the Corbit-Sharp House and Appoquinimink Friends Meetinghouse. Built in 1774 by William Corbit, a tanner, the former is a fine example of Georgian architecture, while the latter, which measures about 20 by 22 feet, is noteworthy as one of the smallest brick houses of worship in the U.S.

The King’s Highway continued on to Wilmington, another 27 mile trip. Here activity converged on the home of Thomas Garrett, in the area known as Quaker Hill. An officer of the Delaware Abolition Society, Garrett operated openly, perhaps emboldened by his wealth and stature in the community and was an important connector between John Hunn further south and William Still in Philadelphia.

The Corbit-Sharp House at 201 Main Street in Odessa, Delaware. | Image courtesy of Historic Odessa Foundation

Today, the Quaker Hill Historic District is a national historic district located west of Wilmington’s central business district. It includes 151 contributing buildings, but unfortunately, Thomas Garrett’s residence at 227 Shipley Street is not one of them.

In the early 19th century, several turnpikes were constructed that reached out from Wilmington. Two of these were Philadelphia Pike to Philadelphia and Kennett Pike north to Pennsylvania, were used extensively by freedom seekers heading north from Thomas Garrett’s home and other shelters.

13 miles to the north, Kennett Square includes several stops. The Pines, at 721 East Baltimore Pike, was the home of Bartholomew Fussell. In 1833, he was one of the original signers of the “Declaration of Sentiments” issued and adopted by the American Anti-Slavery Society, stating its beliefs and goals

Oakdale (aka the Isaac Mendenhall Estate) at 507 Hillendale Road in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Oakdale was another home nearby, on Hillendale Road in Chadds Ford, built in 1840 and also known as the Isaac Mendenhall Estate. In its 1972 nomination to the National Register, the Tri-County Conservancy of the Brandywine (now The Brandywine Conservancy) said “its proportions, and detail reflect the pragmatism of the rural people it served, in contrast to the more ornate houses which were being constructed during the same era.” They also referred to a concealed room in the carriage house, which they claimed was used to harbor fugitive slaves.

Ardent abolitionists Mendenhall and his wife Dinah were among the group in 1853 that broke away from area Quakers and established the Society of Progressive Friends at Longwood to work against slavery. In their new meetinghouse, they hosted renowned speakers and visitors such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth. Located at 330 Greenwood Road in Kennett Square, it currently houses the Brandywine Valley Tourism Information Center.

People’s Hall at 810 Doe Run Road in East Fallowfield, Pennsylvania. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

From Kennett Square, a route could take you into West Chester, or to stay in a more rural area, the village of Ercildoun, 12 miles to the northwest, could be the next stop. There, People’s Hall at 802 Doe Run Road in East Fallowfield Township, had been constructed in 1845 as a location for the East Fallowfield Anti-Slavery Society to meet. It’s a single-story structure with white-washed stuccoed walls over local fieldstone, a style typical of the area farm buildings in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Historian Jane L. S. Davidson, in her 1985 nomination of East Fallowfield to the National Register, described the style: “No formally trained architects are known to have practiced in the township. Structures were built by local artisans and tradesmen using skills inherited or passed from one generation to the next with little outside influence.” In 2015, Preservation Pennsylvania placed People’s Hall on its “At Risk” list of the state’s most endangered historic resources. A friends group is currently endeavoring to preserve the site.

From Ercildoun, 11 miles to the east lay Downingtown. At 341 East Lancaster Avenue, Zebulon Thomas and his daughters operated at boarding school from 1837-1877, along with a building across the street. According to the Downingtown Area Historical Society, the father used the building’s third floor to offer shelter to freedom seekers. Today, it is an office building.

Vickers Pottery at 192 East Welsh Pool Road in Exton, Pennsylvania. | Photo courtesy of Vickers Restaurant & Bar

After a shorter trip of about 5 miles we arrive in Exton where Vickers Pottery served as another station. In addition to sgraffito ware and the red earthenware he created from local clay, John Vickers was well-known as an abolitionist. His father, Thomas, had been a founding member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, formed in Philadelphia in 1777. Its complex of buildings at 192 East Welsh Pool Road still stands and has been in use as a restaurant for many decades. Examples of Vickers pottery are in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Landis Valley Museum, and West Chester University’s anthropology and sociology department.

From Exton we travel about 10 miles northeast where a cluster of historic sites have been preserved. Schuylkill Township has two farmhouses: Elijah Pennypacker’s White Horse Farm at 54 South Whitehorse Road and Meadowbrook, the home of Moses Coates, Jr. at 1416 State Road. Pennypacker served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1831 to 1836, after which he turned his full attention to his anti-slavery work, becoming president of the Chester County and Pennsylvania abolitionist societies.

Fitzwater Station at 264 Canal Street in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. | Image: Google Street View

In nearby Phoenixville, at 264 Canal Road, Abel and Isabel Fitzwater’s membership in the Church of the Brethren, which was known for its anti-slavery stance during the early to mid-1800s, led them to offer shelter to freedom seekers. The farm buildings, alongside the Schuylkill Canal, today are a restaurant still bearing the name Fitzwater Station.

As we move closer to the city, the surviving record—wealthy farms or modest homes, Black or white– grows thinner. Development that has roiled southern and western Chester County in recent decades took a hold on the inner suburbs much earlier.

In 1955, the Radnor Historical Society described the estate of Congressman Jonathan Roberts, an abolitionist who represented Pennsylvania in the early 1800s, as “a notorious station of the ‘Underground Railroad’” and that the house had been razed two years prior to make way for the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Sellers Hall at 150 Hampden Road in Upper Darby. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Approaching Philadelphia, we come to Sellers Hall at 150 Hampden Road in Upper Darby. Completed in 1684, it’s one of the oldest buildings in Pennsylvania. Here, several generations of the Sellers family supported abolition and aided freedom seekers. After spending most of the 20th century as a Catholic church, Sellers Hall is currently owned and being restored by a non-profit friends group.

From Upper Darby, fewer than 10 miles brings us to several important sites in Philadelphia. As in Chester County and Delaware, the surviving sites include the homes of wealthy white people of conscience, such as Belmont Mansion and Germantown’s Johnson House at 6306 Germantown Avenue. At the latter, several members of the Johnson family were active in the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Germantown Freedman’s Aid Association as well as providing shelter to freedom seekers. Belmont Mansion was the home of Judge Richard Peters, who frequently bought enslaved people to free them and also hid fugitives.

The Johnson House at 6306 Germantown Avenue. | Photo: Michael Bixler

In Philadelphia, we finally have a surviving physical record of the participation of Blacks in the Underground Railroad. At Mother Bethel AME Church at 419 South 6th Street, founder Bishop Richard Allen aided freedom seekers and hosted abolitionist speakers.

The homes of two of the foremost participants in the Underground Railroad are those of Philadelphians William Still and Robert Purvis. Among other abolition work, Purvis founded the Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia, to aid freedom seeking fugitives, while his wife Harriet founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. He is associated with two sites in the city: Byberry Hall at 3003 Byberry Road, which is preserved by Byberry Monthly Meeting, and a row house at 1601 Mt. Vernon Street, which has been at the center of a struggle for preservation for several years. It is currently under a conservatorship of the Spring Garden Community Development Corporation, which has done some remediation work.

The Robert Purvis House at 1601 Mt. Vernon Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

There is an historic marker in front of William Still’s last residence at 244 South 12th Street, and more recently, an earlier home at 625 South Delhi Street (formerly Ronaldson Street) was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2018. Still’s contributions to abolition are numerous, but two that particularly stand out are his relentless work in aiding freedom seekers, especially with Wilmington’s Thomas Garrett, and the meticulous records he kept of all those he helped. Published in an 1872 book, The Underground Railroad Records, it is undoubtedly the most thorough documentation of the extent of these efforts.

Many who were aided to freedom by the Underground Railroad settled in Philadelphia and its environs. Others continued the journey north, to other free states or to Canada, stopping at numerous sites in Montgomery and Bucks counties.

The preservation of these and similar buildings illustrates some, but not all of the story of the Underground Railroad. Through them, we learn of the station masters who acted on their consciences and had the power and the means to participate.

The William Still House at 244 South 12th Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

What’s missing are the more modest stops along the way, often free Blacks whose dwellings weren’t placed on the National Register and the many conductors who guided the freedom seekers along the journey. Except for famous names like Harriet Tubman and Samuel Burris, most worked in secret and remained anonymous.

There were still others who contributed behind the scenes, who Thomas Garrett referred to as “the eyes and ears along the way.” He exchanged letters with Samuel Burris and William Still, often multiple times a day, according to Cloud. “Who was delivering these letters? It was a network of trusted couriers whose names we do not know.”

And above all, the most important role was played by the freedom seekers themselves, scores of whom made the journey anonymously, with no aid at all.

There are many historians and institutions dedicated to learning more. “The research and the passion to tell these stories is unwavering,” said Cloud. “We’re all looking to give a voice to the voiceless.”

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About the Author

Kimberly Haas is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She is a long time radio journalist, both nationally and locally with WHYY and WXPN. In particular, she enjoys covering Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, culture and history, as well as urban sustainability and public policy, in both print and audio.

13 Comments:

  1. Friends of Abolition Hall says:

    Between Phoenixville and Germantown, two stations were especially active–Norristown and Plymouth Meeting. At the latter, the Maulsby and Corson families sheltered enslaved people, and conveyed them to the next stop north. See http://www.abolitionhall.com

  2. Robert E Seeley says:

    Thanks you Kimberly Haasenjoyed reading

    1. Steve brown says:

      Check into the loch aerie mansion in Frazer, PA. It is situated right next to the Home Depot and across the street from the Sheraton Hotel. I grew up in a small house (owned by the Sheraton, on their property) and I always heard about a tunnel that led from my house to the mansion under Route 30 (Lancaster Ave). It was rumored to be a hideout for slaves during that time period. Please, if you do find anything out, let me know! I’ve been searching for answers since I was a child about this and would love to know!

  3. I’m so happy to be a part of this event. Learned a lot from the most influential people and brightest minds within the community as well as countless opportunities for networking, code sprints, and informal conversations.

  4. Nancy Webster says:

    I have been researching this topic for 50+ yrs, am a descendant of 8 station keepers locally. Am now working on a book of Delaware County’s sites – 177 that are provable, not just legend.

  5. Heather Peterman says:

    Would love confirmation if the house next to the Spring Mill Fire station in Conshohocken/Whitemarsh, up the hill from the Spring Mill train stop was part of the Underground Railroad as we were told when we worked there. Thanks!

  6. Jackeline Hunt says:

    Thank you Kimberly. Very informative article. Happy to see that you mentioned the locations and people that are often forgotten.

  7. Lynda Bach says:

    My grandparents are Cora and Michael O’connell. My grandmother’s family owned what is now called the Fitzwater Station. Her father had a general store there and after his death my grandparents opened a local bar. I remember as a kid how thick the walls were. My grandparents lived above the bar. I was told that when the current owners remodeled the second floor they found small chairs and a table in the walls that is where they thought people where hidden.

    1. Mary Benton says:

      There used to be a mansion on the property that is now a Nursing Home(Phoenixville Manor)in Phoenixville, Pa that I was told used to be a part of the underground railroad.

  8. John Rowe says:

    Thomas Garrett had a property on Garrett Road in Drexel Hill, Pa. It still stands and it’s registered in the historical society. It was a stop on the underground railroad.

  9. Michael DeFlavia says:

    Thank you so much for this history. Not only should it be preserved but we, as a community, must work hard to uncover even more!

  10. Raymond Battisto says:

    Friends meeting in Phoenixville, PA. was Also on the underground railroad.

  11. Thank you for a wonderful article. Chester County is planning a county-wide commemoration of Juneteenth this year which will include numerous tours and programs highlighting Underground Railroad sites and stories. The programs will extend from June 12 through July 1. Please be our guest.

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