For black slaves the “Promise Land” wasn’t the United States. Instead it was Canada.
Before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and even decades before the Civil War (1860-1865), black slaves wanted freedom, especially from slave owners in the South, who considered black men, women and children their property.
Many slaves got their freedom through the national Underground Railroad movement that started 30 years before the Civil War by black and non-black abolitionists. Most of the non-black abolitionists were Quakers, an
affluent community at that time, said Millard Mitchell, whose grandfather was a slave.
In Pennsylvania, Bucks County was a hub for the movement, which locally spread from Bristol to Yardley and up to New Hope. Those communities are along the Delaware River and Delaware Canal, along which fugitive slaves used to travel on barges and as travel guides, said Mitchell, who’s been researching the Underground Railroad since hearing stories of the movement in the area after he moved to Yardley in 1956. The retired aeronautical engineer is also an avid student of black history.
Pennsylvania was a major player in the Underground Railroad. Several routes went from Philadelphia to Bucks County, then to Trenton, N.J., and New York before ending in Canada.
Because of Pennsylvania’s long standing against slavery and its geographic position as a border state, the Commonwealth was an ideal hideout for fleeing slaves, Mitchell said.
The undercover movement had nothing to do with the train system. Railroad terminology was used for code words that were made up by abolitionists.
“Sometimes, routes of the Underground Railroad were organized by abolitionists. More often, the network was a series of small, individual actions to help fugitive slaves,” according to education.nationalgeographic.com. “Using the terminology of the railroad, those who went south to find slaves seeking freedom were called ‘pilots.’
Those who guided slaves to safety and freedom were ‘conductors.’ The slaves were ‘passengers.’ People’s homes or businesses, where fugitive passengers and conductors could safely hide, were ‘stations.’ ”
Stations were set up quietly and advertised by discreet word-of-mouth. Fugitive slaves traveled by night and hid during the day. They identified safe houses by lights in windows, Mitchell said.
Most of the hideouts were in properties owned by Quakers, who set up tiny spaces well underneath their structures with some connecting to tunnels to avoid people seeing the fleeing blacks.
Few records were kept of the movement and stations in order to protect homeowners and the fugitives, according to the website. It was a federal crime for slaves to escape, as it was to harbor and help fugitive slaves.
If caught, black people on the run from southern slave owners were forced back to enslavement. And those who aided them ran the risk of being jailed. This applied to people living in states that supported slavery as well as
those living in free states, according to education.nationalgeographic.com.
One of the leading black organizers was Harriet Tubman, who, according to legend, helped some 300 slaves escape from the Southern states to “free” states in the North and Canada, which Tubman referred as “the Promise Land.”
Tubman knew all too well the desperation to escape. She was born into slavery in Maryland, from where she escaped at 12 years old. Tubman was born Araminta Ross, but after marrying John Tubman, a free black man, she took his last name and adopted her mother’s name, Harriet.
After escaping, Tubman moved around and ended in Philadelphia, where she helped pioneered the Underground Railroad movement in the region with the help of other abolitionist movers and shakers.
Tubman started the Bucks County’s contribution to the Underground Railroad in Bristol, Mitchell said.
In Bristol, there’s a Tubman statue commemorating her efforts of helping fugitive slaves. Bristol resident Louise Davis is a descendant of Tubman. The BucksCountyInTime was unsuccessful in reaching Davis for comment after several phone calls.
Charles L. Blockson of Gwynedd has the largest private collection of African-American historical items in the county and is an expert in the Underground Railroad. He is quoted in a Bucks County Courier Times newspaper article as saying, “Mount Gilead Church in Buckingham, along the canal, all the way down to Bristol, up to Easton, there’s some stations in New Hope, all along the river there . . . Pennsylvania was a key state, Bucks County was a key.”
In Yardley, there a several locations that likely served to hide fugitive slaves, Mitchell said. In his research, he has concluded that those sites include a white-columned mansion on South Main Street; a shop on Afton
Avenue; a South Canal Street house, which was moved for a convenient store; the Old Library; borough Baptist and AME churches; and a River Road stone house, which Mitchell believes was used as a lookout point, he said.
In addition, Mitchell said there’s a good chance the Continental Tavern, the Grist Mill and Lakeside, a Lake Afton historic house were also Yardley stations. He strongly believes the three structures were connected by a
tunnel system because they are in close proximity to each other.
Continental Tavern owner Frank Lyons believes Mitchell makes a good argument.
During renovations of the bar/restaurant, some sort of potential tunnel system was discovered deep underground of his business.
Underneath the kitchen a basement room was found with 18 inch stone walls and there was no way in from the basement. Eventually a way was made.
“What we also discovered in the corner of this building was a 90-degree quarter circle wall,” Lyons said. “We wondered what was behind the wall, so we took a couple of stones out and put a light down and put some cameras and took some pictures. And what we found was a tunnel that went down to the ground.
“This tunnel may have been at one time a sistern to hold what they call gray water, it wouldn’t have been used for sewer underneath the building. So we when we got it opened, we began digging. We dug about 25 feet and we ran out of rope ladder.”
So he had Mitchell take a look. At that time Mitchell made the case that there were three hidden chambers.
“Right behind us was the Grist Mill and next to us is Lake Side and the Continental contained chambers of sorts that were used to hide fugitive slaves as they fled north in the Underground Railroad,” Lyons said.
The second oldest Quaker meeting house in Pennsylvania is in Yardley.
“It would have been logical that it would have been the Quakers to be the leading abolitionists,” said Lyon, who is a history buff and an American Revolution re-enactor. “And it was logical that there would be a robust way
station here on the Underground Railroad. Now, (Mitchell) claims there was a tunnel that came up from the area of the canal and connected these three buildings. So this tunnel that we found may in fact be a part of a larger
tunnel system that was down there.”
Other than the tunnels, Lyons hasn’t found artifacts that would better cement the argument that indeed the Continental Tavern was a station for the Underground Railroad.
He’ll keep on digging, Lyons said.
But his daughter Coleen has come across a room of ghosts that appeared to have been involved in the Underground Railroad, he said, adding that he does believe that his daughter has had contact with ghost.
During a ghost cleansing of the tavern a couple of years ago by a third party, Coleen, then 11, told Lyons that she could see a black boy, about 7 or 8 years old, wearing worn out and dirty clothes and who wanted to be
reunited with his parents.
At the other end of the room there was a group of black people.
Lyons asked Coleen to ask them the location of the Underground Railroad tunnel or hideout.
They refused because it was a secret.
But Coleen heard the ghosts mumbling among each other.
It’s by the kitchen, she told Lyons.