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Researching Underground Railroad history

Franklin County hires expert to unearth local connections to route used to free slaves

Franklin County hires expert to unearth local connections to route used to free slaves

February 29, 2008|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Documenting the path and history of the Underground Railroad through Franklin County is a daunting task, precisely because those who used and operated it were acting in secret.

Much of what is known about the system of routes and safe houses used by fleeing slaves is anecdotal - stories passed from generation to generation, rumors and old newspaper stories written decades after the Civil War ended the need for the Underground Railroad.

In 2007, the Franklin County Underground Railroad Coalition was formed by the county's Visitors Bureau, which identified 20 sites with potential connections to the Underground Railroad, said Janet Pollard, director of the bureau.

At the beginning of this year, Randolph Harris of Lancaster, Pa., was hired by the county to do further research and submit applications to the National Park Service to have the sites designated as part of its Network to Freedom, Pollard said.

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There are 22 such sites in Pennsylvania, but none so far in Franklin County, Harris said Thursday during an address to the Kittochtinny Historical Society. However, Pennsylvania has included Chambersburg in its "Quest for Freedom" Web site and trail guide, he said.

"There is much left to do in the area of research," Harris said. Quoting an author on the subject, he said the history of the railroad is "a mix of facts embroidered by myths."

South-central Pennsylvania was a natural pathway for slaves escaping from Maryland and Virginia, Harris said. Crossing the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania, those seeking freedom found abolitionists to shelter them on their way to Philadelphia, he said.

There is documentation for some sites, historical society President Ann Hull said. In 1858, John Brown planned the Harpers Ferry, W.Va., raid in Chambersburg. The house was owned by Mary Ritner, the widow of Abraham Ritner, the son of an abolitionist Pennsylvania governor.

Abraham Ritner's daughter, Emma, wrote late in her life that he was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, as well as an actual train conductor, Hull said.

Abolitionist U.S. Sen. Thaddeus Stevens owned an ironworks in Caledonia, Pa., where escaped slaves might have stayed, perhaps working to pay for the next leg of their journey, Harris said.

A 1911 newspaper interview with Hiram Wertz of Quincy Township provides some details of his helping freedom seekers, Harris said. The Cloister at Snow Hill near Waynesboro, Pa., might have been another haven, he said.

Martin Delany, the black publisher of The Mystery, an abolitionist newspaper in Pittsburgh, spent much of his youth in Chambersburg, Harris said. Henry Watson, a black barber, also is believed to have aided escaped slaves.

Both men have Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission markers in Chambersburg.

"The Light at Parnell," near Fort Loudon, Pa., is one of the more intriguing stories that Harris related Thursday. Local legend is that a fire was lighted atop the mountain to warn escaped slaves that fugitive slave hunters were in the area, he said.

Through the end of 2009, Harris will be researching sites and submitting applications to the National Park Service. He told the historical society members that they and others can aid that task by providing whatever evidence they can uncover about the Underground Railroad.

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