They came from the South on a life-or-death journey mostly undertaken in the cover of night.
After reaching Harrisburg, they made stops in Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Clarks Green, Waverly Twp., Fleetville or Factoryville and maybe Tunkhannock on the way to New York towns of Owego or Elmira. Or they reached Philadelphia and then pressed on to Coatesville, Stroudsburg, Waverly Twp. or Montrose before crossing into Owego or Binghamton.
Here in Northeast Pennsylvania, anti-slavery sympathizers would offer money, food and shelter to runaway slaves traveling the Underground Railroad in the 1850s and ’60s. Though its very existence depended on secrecy, historians have researched homes and residents here that played roles in helping slaves find their way to freedom.
A Scranton Times article published on Oct. 3, 1916, featured interviews with several locals who remembered when the Underground Railroad was active.
“There were a number of sympathizers … in Waverly who fed, sheltered and aided the fleeing slaves,” the article reported. “Among them were Mr. Rodman Sisson, Deacon Tillinghast and Mrs. Eunice Chase.”
The article also included recollections from Amenzo Mumford, who was 15 when “his father would furnish food, more often money, to (fugitives) who applied for help on their way to Canada. The sympathizers would give work in the fields to the fugitives so they could earn money to hire vehicles or buy provisions to tide them over long stretches of road to the next station,” the article reported. “The slave catchers, men hired by slave owners, learned that the ‘system’ was so scattered over a big territory, and so well perfected, it was useless expense and labor to look for fugitives in this section.”
That article noted that slaves making their way to freedom would reach Waverly after traveling through Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and Stroudsburg. Others followed the Susquehanna River through Wilkes-Barre and then on to Waverly before reaching Peterboro and Central New York.
Sherman F. Wooden, president of the Center for Anti-Slavery Studies in Montrose, has done extensive research into the role our region played in the Underground Railroad. According to his research, abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass and Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman passed through the region, as did abolitionist John Brown.
The Underground Railroad’s role here had much to do with the area’s residents, especially the Presbyterians and Quakers, “who had a staunch anti-slavery attitude,” according to a Feb. 8, 2004 Sunday Times article. “In the small, rural community of Montrose … at least seven properties have been identified as former safe houses on the Underground Railroad.”
The Montrose fire hall and the Montrose jail were stops along the escape route, according to local research. And the Silver Lake Bank House, which once hid runaway slaves, now houses the Center for Anti-Slavery Studies. In 2000, the group had begun an excavation in an attempt to discover more about underground tunnels beneath the home used by fleeing slaves. In front of the Church Street home, “one of the stones is actually fitted with two rusted hinges where escaped slaves were dropped into the tunnel leading to the house,” according to a June 18, 2000, Sunday Times story.
Wooden said excavation work did not lead to the discovery of extensive tunnels, because once slaves seeking freedom reached the Scranton area and points north, the need for secrecy was less important than in the South.
“It was a strong abolitionist area” with locals moving here from “the New England colonies,” Wooden said in a phone interview. “There was a strong religious (belief) here — a human being shouldn’t own another human being.”
In Waverly, a private property called the Bohlin home in a 2004 Sunday Times article served as a safe house for runaway slaves, as did several other properties. A small group of fugitives decided to settle in the Waverly area, according to research, and used a small schoolhouse built in the 1830s as a place to learn to read and write, as well as a place to worship. That building, located along North Abington Road near the Waverly Community House, was recently purchased by local business owner Mark Columbo and his wife, Cara. Plans for the building have not been publicly announced.
The Center for Anti-Slavery Studies will be celebrating the Silver Lake Bank House’s 200th anniversary with a slate of activities starting in April, Wooden said.
Additionally, the center has a traveling exhibit with information about the region’s role in the Underground Railroad.
ON THE COVER:The Torrey House in Montrose is an underground railroad safe house used to hide slaves seeking freedom in the northern states during the Civil War.