The Underground Railroad wasn’t a locomotive with train cars and track at all, but a 500-mile network of secret passages that took slaves from bondage to freedom before and during the Civil War. Escape routes stretched from the southern slave states into the North and on to Canada. Fugitives usually traveled secretly at night, and were hidden by thousands of “conductors” during the day, many of whom were right here in the Finger Lakes.
My two teenagers and I recently visited three Finger Lakes-area stops on the former Underground Railroad: Syracuse, Auburn and Elmira, each time digging deeper into the rich and inspirational history that graces this part of New York.
Syracuse, a radical city
Down the narrow, dingy basement stairs we cautiously step, following our leader with flashlight in hand. She unlocks an old furnace door and casts the beam on a tunnel deep beneath the structure of the building. A dugout dirt bench, carved out of the clay subsoil is clearly visible. On quick inspection, it appears as if the tunnel ends. But what isn’t obvious is that it also wraps behind the furnace. Shielded by light and sound, there’s a jog in the crude bench. Fugitive slaves once sat here for hours, even days, awaiting their transport north. They lit small candles, whispered, and were warmed by the furnace. Some artistic slaves gouged out the clay and carved faces to pass the time. They stand as a record of the souls who passed this way.
From the outside, the building looks like any other wood-frame church dating back to the 1840s. Red brick with white trim, a steeple pierces the azure sky. But this former Methodist Church was once the gathering place of the great “Underground Railroad King” Reverend Jermain Wesley Loguen. Originally from Tennessee, Reverend Loguen was born into slavery. His mother was a slave, and his father owned her.
In Syracuse, Loguen established two Underground Railroad terminals, one in his home and one in the church and helped some 1,500 fugitive slaves escape to Canada. Loguen was a close friend of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass; Douglass’ son married Loguen’s daughter.
Today, the church is The Mission Restaurant, specializing in Mexican food. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. When we enter, we immediately notice a large, ornate cast-iron grate in the wood floor. It was the air vent for the fugitives who hid directly below. As the evening light streamed through the stained glass windows, manager Kathy Westlake was happy to share the building’s history.
Syracuse received the largest number of fugitive slaves of any town in New York. It was well-positioned geographically – from there, it was a relatively straight shot to Canada. The city was openly abolitionist, and anti-slavery conventions were often held there. In 1850, the mayor of Syracuse declared the town an “open city” for fugitive slaves. To the federal government, this was considered treason.
Around the corner from The Mission is the Onondaga Historical Association Museum & Research Center, the regional interpretation center for the Underground Railroad. The award-winning exhibit captivated us. Five life-sized, cutout figures of those who played important roles in Syracuse’s Underground Railroad “speak” to us and tell us their story. My kids and I settled onto the carpeted floor in the darkened room and were transported by a computerized light-and-sound show to a time few Americans are proud of.
Afterward, we wandered over to the permanent exhibit that is the showcase of the museum. The carved clay faces from Reverend Loguen’s church, which were carefully extracted by archeologists, are displayed for all to see. The haunting sculptures show the artists’ fingerprints as they captured African features and hair, along with the struggle that weighed heavy on their hearts.
From there, we made our way to Clinton Square where a remarkable larger-than-life sculpture depicts the “Jerry Rescue.” On October 1, 1851, black and white Syracusans forcibly rose up against the federal government to free runaway slave William “Jerry” Henry from the Clinton Square jail, where he was held captive by federal marshals. Henry had been at work as a cooper making barrels when he was seized and thrown into prison. An anti-slavery convention was being held in the city, and when those in attendance heard what had befallen one of their citizens, a crowd of over 2,000 rushed the jailhouse with a battering ram. Miller was rescued and spirited away to Canada.
Abolitionists in Auburn
From Syracuse, we traveled to Auburn, on the westward and northern route of the Underground Railroad. Before and during the Civil War, it boasted an active and free black population. Many homes in this picturesque town sheltered fugitives, including the Victorian mansion of William Seward, the famed Governor of New York who had the extraordinary vision to purchase Alaska from Russia in 1867. Seward and his wife, Francis, were devoted abolitionists. On the tour of their home, we see where the walk-in hearth kitchen in the basement provided freedom seekers with a warm place to hide and rest.
The 17-room mansion was continuously the home of three generations of Sewards, from 1816 until 1951. Among the 100,000 pieces of manuscript material, there are “the Seward papers,” which documents the fugitive slaves he helped. William “Jerry” Henry was one of them.
Seward’s family and home suffered because of the noble stand he took. A number of his pets were poisoned and his carriage house was set on fire by “Copperheads” – northerners who were southern sympathizers.
While perusing Seward’s home and museum displays, we learned about the unusual connection he had with Abraham Lincoln. We didn’t know Seward ran for president against Lincoln, that he worked to convince Lincoln to abolish slavery, and that his assassination was scheduled for the same night as President Lincoln’s. (Seward was stabbed but not killed.)
Other threads connecting great Americans become evident as we traveled the path of the Underground Railroad. Frederick Douglass was a frequent visitor to the Seward residence, as was Harriet Tubman, arguably the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. Seward became her dear friend and provided her with a two-story home on the outskirts of Auburn, later selling her the property for a modest sum.
Our visit to the Tubman House and Museum proves to be one of the most moving experiences we have on our travels.
When Tubman was 15, her master flung a 2-pound lead weight at her head causing an injury that would result in uncontrollable and unexpected sleeping spells for the rest of her life. Four years later, when she feared she would be sold, the 19-year-old set off for freedom. Her father taught her how to read the night sky; it served as her road map and helped her successfully conduct hundreds of others like her to freedom.
Tubman carried a six shooter strapped to her leg to ward off pursuers, and opium to quiet crying babies. She made 19 trips from south to north,
rescuing more than 300 slaves.
As I stood at the threshold of Harriet Tubman’s bedroom, I stared off at the quilt on her carved oak bed, her personal Bible on a small table and her rocking chair. If she sat still for more than 15 minutes, she would fall into
an exhausted slumber.
Our last stop in Auburn is the Springside Inn, where owner Sean Lattimore took us behind the historic building to the woodlands of Galpin Hill. We walked the same trail as the slaves who were conducted on through the dark, tense nights.
From Elmira to everywhere
Elmira, in Chemung County, close to the Pennsylvania border, had become a transportation center by the mid-1800s. Real railroads came into the city, and the use of the Chemung Canal increased, making the city a valuable stop on the Underground Railroad. From Elmira, there were a variety of major transportation routes that led to much of New York and Pennsylvania. The same valleys that attracted railroad and canal construction also attracted slaves running toward freedom; the new routes were the easiest and fastest to travel.
Nearly every church in Elmira was active as an Underground Railroad station. The most famous conductor there, however, operated from his house behind Elmira’s First Baptist Church. John Jones personally assisted 800 slaves to freedom. A former slave himself, Jones settled in Elmira after he won his freedom in 1844.
Jones used an actual railroad in his conducting, hiding fugitives in the 4 p.m. “Freedom Baggage Car” that traveled to Niagara Falls, a stone’s throw from free Canada. Railroad employees were sympathetic to Jones’s cause and charged him nothing for his “freight.”
Jones is known for other heroics. During the Civil War, the most infamous prison camp for captured Confederate soldiers was in Elmira. The harsh conditions at Camp Rathbun, called “Hellmira” by its inmates, brought its mortality rate to 25 percent, the highest among Northern prison camps. As sexton of the Woodlawn Cemetery there, Jones single-handedly buried nearly 3,000 Confederate soldiers who had died from small pox, the harsh winters, and a flood of the Chemung River. He kept careful records of each one. Today, Jones’s memorial reads: “He risked his life to escape bondage, then dedicated his life to bury those who might enslave him.”
My children and I took an informative and engaging historical tour on a trolley called The Elmiran. Woodlawn National Cemetery, where the grave markers line up like a small version of Arlington National Cemetery, was the most moving stop. Nearby is the newly restored John Jones house, which, in the future, will highlight the history of African Americans in New York’s southern tier.
Throughout our tour of the Underground Railroad in the Finger Lakes, we learned, made connections, and gained insight into an emotional time in American history. Our hearts were moved again and again. We came away with pride for these heroes of our country who “slaved” even after they were released from bondage to make America truly free.
by Cindy Ross
Cindy Ross loves to write historical stories like this one to share the world and the past with her homeschooled teens. It helps her learn and understand the world, too.