An article appearing in the Washington, PA, Observer Newspaper

October 16, 1884 (Specially prepared for the Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph

 

OLD SLAVERY DAYS: History of the Underground Railroad

Thrilling Story of an Organization without an Officer---

Facts Concealed for Twenty---Four Years

How the Oppressed were made free

And who did it---Light upon a Subject

Heretofore Veiled in Mystery

 

Thousands join in the refrain, "John Brown's body lies mouldering in the ground," to which the words convey little meaning. The mass of young men who are assuming the various responsibilities of life; even the teachers in our public schools, not only in the Eastern and newly erected Western States, but in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, where the lines of the Underground Railroad were laid, and in which the managers, agents and conductors lived and operated, know little or nothing of the wonderful organization which interposed between the slave and his master when the latter pursued him into the free States gave the trembling refugee assurance, and safe and often speedy passage to Canada, the Canaan of the colored race throughout a generation. Of the oppressed who turned their eyes hopefully to the North, and avalied themselves in large numbers of the noiseless machinery of the great Underground Railway, the rising generation is wholly ignorant

.

A complete history of the Underground Railroad would prove to be one of the most thrilling and instructive histories of the human faction ever written. Such a thing as a complete history of the Underground Railroad however, is impossible. It was an organization without a President, Secretary or Treasurer; it dispensed with the services of an Auditor, had no use for an Auditing committee; issued no bonds; depended solely upon human trusts the most perfect framework that could be devised. The shareholders were each and every one masters; absolute owners of depots, stations and rolling stock. Every transaction was so complete in itself that no records were necessary, and the dividends were declared in heaven. The roadbed was as irregular as the flight of birds; while it seemed in the eyes of the perplexed slaveholders to embrace every part of free soil between the slave States and Canada, it was an impalpable, when they strove to put their hands on it, as the air cloven by birds of passage.

 

In short, the underground railroad was operated so noiselessly and in such a mysterious manner that many slave owners, unable to account for the sudden disappearance of their slaves, who seemed to be swallowed up by the earth, since the strictest search failed to disclose their where-abouts, or any clue to the means by which they were spirited away, began to speculate seriously upon the possibilities of a subterranean passage.

 

This implies a compliment to the presence of mind, tact, discretion and courage of the managers, agents and conductors of the Underground Railroad, which was hardly earned. In all they did, they never let the right hand know what the left hand was doing. Parents concealed the part they acted from their children, brothers aided the movement unknown to each other, and in some instances husbands and wives contributed their aid and means without the other's knowledge. Especially was this secrecy resorted to for self-protection after the passage of what was termed the Fugitive slave law; the penalities imposed were as severe and far-reaching as to punish the hand that gave a cup of water to a slave fleeing from his master. Prior to the enactment in 1850 of a law that aroused the indignation of the people of the free States, existing laws, had they been enforced, would have sufficed the slave owner, but when these were disregarded, and the discussion of the slave question reached the point where the right of the master to his property in human flesh and blood was questioned; in short when the Underground Railroad was making tremendous inroads in the border slave States and began to be sensibly felt in the cotton and sugar growing States, the slave power succeeded in procuring an enactment that was regarded by the people of the free States as "the last hair on the camel's back" to employ a common figure.

 

All who were conscientiously opposed to slavery pronounced the law infamous; even these who by silence seemed to tacitly endorse slavery were averse to a law that compelled them to assist the master in regaining his slaves, for the provisions of the law rendered all amenable who refused to give their aid when the master was in a strait, or when called on to assist in placing shackles upon a fugitive. Men suffered imprisonment for merely looking on when the whip was taken from the master's hand, placed in that of the fleeing slave, and by him applied to the master's back. Not only a heavy fine, but imprisonment awaited all who violated a law, designed to arrest runaway slaves in the free States and convert citizens of the free States into "nigger catchers" for the South.

The heart of the mass of the Northern people had long revolted from what was termed, as the angry discussion between the South and North was prolonged, "the twin relic of barbarism," now the brain as well as the heart of the North revolted. The attempt to transform the machinery of a government founded on universal freedom into a police system or the protection of property in slaves, and the perpetuation of slavery, and this, too, at a time when the heart and brain of the country had protested against the extension of slave territory, was resented. The slave owners overshot the mark. Instead of relaxing their efforts, the managers, agents, and conductors of the Underground Railroad, manifested greater activity than ever. They renewed their exertions in behalf of the refugees in defiance of the law, and in doing this they incurred extraordinary risks, and exhibited a devotion to principle as rare as any to be found in the history of the world.

 

Gathering The Threads

The severe penalties warranted a degree of secrecy in the operations of the Underground Railroad that renders it imposible at this late day to present anything like a complete record even if it were desirable. Those who were most active for obvious reasons kept their own counsel so long that they are unable to recall names and dates with certainty. The foremost and most resolute among them have gone to their final account. Their children, men and women, for the resons stated, can give but vague, and fragmentary statements. It is noteworthy that these, without exception, are corroborative. Owing to the disjointed or disconnected form in which narratives of the Underground Railroad are presented, it is necessary in order to insure a continuous coherent statement with the details essential to completeness to consult numbers of people. As the depots and stations of the Underground Railroad were under the charge of individuals at intervals a few miles apart to follow the flight of a party of refugees from the edge of Virginia to Canada, the investigator is perforce compelled to pick up a link here and there, or, to employ a better comparison, the stations were so interwoven in out-of-the-way places, highways and towns, as to form a huge and close network, the threads of which must be carefully followed in order to understand the eccentric operations of a system that sometimes reminds one of the doubling of a hare.

 

It has happened---not once, but a core of times---that a story begun in Pittsburgh, or Allegheny county, has been completed on the edge of Washington or Greene counties, or in Maryland and Virginia, and vice versa. Indeed, that is the most remarkable thing encountered in an attempt to follow the fortunes of a fugitive from the hour he entrusted himself to the conductors of the Underground Railroad until he reached his goal.

 

In the present instance all that is attempted is to describe the operations of that portion of the Underground Railroad which embraced Washington, Greene and Allegheny counties. In doing this, the parts played by prominent and highly respected citizens long dead, and men still living among us, will be described. Many of the incidents are of such a romantic character that we would hesitate to give them were they not as well authenticated as any narrative which obtains instant credence on account of the high standing and character of the witness living. These embrace all classes, from the slaves who periled their lives to gain freedom, to the wealthiest farmers and merchants and the most distinguished in the professions; Judges (not a few), officers of the United States Government; superannuated (i.e. retired) clergymen, all figure in the unwritten records of the Underground Railway.

 

Stories Illustrating the Subject

The first story will serve to illustrate the operations of the Underground Railroad and the truthfulness of a series of narratives related in a disconnected form by three different witnesses, none of whom knew or could have any knowldege of the statements made by the others. The witnesses referred to are colored, but the statements they made separately and apart from each other were corroborated by white citizens of the highest standing in Washington, Waynesburg and West Middletown.

 

In 1859, nine slaves belonging to a man named Ross, residing near Clarksburg, Virginia, made their escape. They made their way towards Morgantown, crossing the State line at a point near Newton, Greene County, PA.

 

Ross, with a number of friends making a party of eighteen or twenty including officers, pursued and overtook the refugees upon the road in broad daylight. The refugees carried their corn-cutters with them as a means of defense. There is a story current that they engaged in breaking stones on the road for the purpose of diverting attention from them until they could be forwarded to Waynesburg or West Alexander. However that may have been they were surprised by their owner and his friends upon a part of the road covered with newly broken stones. Instead of relying upon the corn knives, they opened the battle with stones. The whites spurring their horses forward, strove to ride them down, but the refugees fought them off with stones, laming one of the horses and inflicting serious injuries upon several of their pursuers. The refugees succeeded in driving Ross' party from the ground then disappeared. The Ross party rallied after a time and renewed the pursuit, pushing on to Waynesburg. Here Ross and his posse instituted a rigid search for the runaways, but failed to discover any clue to them. The party of nine were under such safe-guards as could be devised by the agents and conductors of the Underground Railroad. Boyd Crumrine, in his history of Washington County, referring to this matter, says: "They were under the guidance of an experienced conductor, who knew to whom to bring them. Arriving at Waynesburg, they were delivered over to a colored barber there, who fed them at a deep spring in a thicket across the creek, then brought them to a dry house and stowed them away among the lumber. The barber came out on the street. The owner met him and charged him with a knowledge of his property. The barber trembled, but while the owner threatened, then coaxed, then scolded, he parleyed and joked, and desired to gain time for the fugitives. At length the owner pulled out a roll of money and offered him three hundred dollars per head to disclose where the slaves were. A gentleman, then a student at Waynesburg College, who, unobserved himself, saw and heard the rejection of it, accompanied by this remark, "No sir; if I knowed where your slaves are, all the money in the South wouldn't get me to tell." The barber was Ermin Cain, the present janitor of our court house."

 

Janitor of Washington Court House

Ermin Cain enjoys the confidence and hearty good will of all who know him. He is regarded as entirely trustworthy in all the serious affairs of life. His sense of humor is very strong; he displays in a remarkable degree the jovial disposition characteristic of his race. He fairly bubbles over with fun. He is 56 years old, but no one would think him more than 40 or 45 at most. A yellow man, born free, intelligent, keen witted, and keeps up with the times. A great reader---manifest extraordinary interest in the political campaign.

We will let Ermin tell the part he played in the drama referred to premising that the chief points in his statement were corroborated by the testimony of others, who were interviewed before and after Ermin was seen.

 

Ermin Cain's Story

"Ross' slaves," Ermin pricked up his ears. "Yes, I know all about that lot. O! you want to know the master's name? Why they belonged to a man named Cyprus Ross. Yes, that's the lot that fought the battle at Blacksville. I ought to know just how many there were. There were nine. I'll never forget that party. I never was so scared in my life. Begin at the beginning. Well, I was born and raised on old Dr. Wheeler's farm in Washington County. i kept a barber shop in Waynesburg, under the Hamilton Hotel, a long time ago. Very lively town them days! O, yes! The slaves were running off---well, say back about '49 most every week the masters would come into Waynesburg red hot, swearing and stamping around likely. The time you speak of, a man rode into town with a lot of friends. He rode in, in a buggy. They suspected I knew something and they were right. I pretended to keep a stiff upper lip, but I was shaking in my shoes---deed I was. You see the goods were in Sam Jewell's dry house. Where was it? Right in town to be sure. If they'd been out of town I wouldn't have been so frightened. Well, Ross, he got out of his buggy and came at me everybody knew me most as well as they knew Mr. Joseph Taylor, who kept the hotel then. He swore I knew where his niggers were, an' I of course, I talked an' talked, an' then he pulled out a lot of money. Yes I do mean to say he pulled out a roll of money as big around as that" (here Ermin described a bulk as thick as a man's arm) "and shook it as me. Says he, 'I'll give you $300 a head for every one of them niggers if you will tell me where they are.' Whoever told you he offered me $2,500 got it wrong; he offered me $300 a piece. I was laughing and trembling at the same time--I had a cold sweat on me. 'Twas enough to make the cold sweat come on any man! Says I, two or three---a dozen or more times, 'Mr. Ross, I don't know anything about your people. You'd better believe I got them out of the dry-house in less than no time that night or 'long toward morning."

 

Here a listener interjected "Luther McCraken, now practicing at the Washington bar, was attending college at Waynesburg then. He heard Ross tempting Ermin, and, as he tells it, he was afraid Ermin might take the money, "whereupon Ermin laughed heartily.

 

"You want to know how they came to me? Well, we had lots of ways. To get into the secret of the matter, there were the places to hide them all over Greene and Washington counties. Yes, I can start in with the first point after they cross the line that was at Blacksville. Part of the town was in Virginia. That stone fight wasn't far from Elsha Purr's station.

 

"After the fight Elisha was on hand and he took them into his house. Somehow Ross' party suspected they went that way, and they followed. Well, when they went up to the house, "Elisha, who was powerfully strong for a little man---he didn't care for no man---he stood right in the door with his gun. He didn't tell me---I heard this from Ross' slaves-they were inside, in under the bed, in the kitchen and up in the loft, tremblin' for their lives because Ross' party was ready to shoot. But 'Lisha was just as ready. He stood in his door and asked them to show their warrant for searching his house. He knew what was and what was not law, and he swore he'd kill the first man that crossed his doorstep---and that cowed them. They went oft swearing after a warrant and Lisha, he sent the slaves out the back way into a cornfield, and then they hid in the woods, and when Ross came back with the warrant of course there was no body 'round. 'Lisha, he and another man brought them right into Waynesburg, or near it, and I put them in Sam Jewell's dry house well on in the morning. There was another station in towards the Virginia line southeast of Waynesburg kept by a colored man named Davis, a very black man, he was manumitted---that was at Shannon's Run. And there was a station a little out of Carmichaels where I sent Ross' slaves. Jimmy Hansbury, a colored man,lived there. Then, to show you how we worked it there was a station at Rogersville, west of Waynesburg, about seven miles from it. Eli Adams, a colored man lived there, Lisha Purr's, the farthest south of town, at Blacksville, was only thirteen miles from Waynesburg---you can see how we crossed them over, keeping off the roads, except in rare occasions and when things were squally keeping them weeks in the woods. There was a station---a very prominent station, on Ruff's Creek, close to the road, and you'll be surprised when I tell you it was Judge Ross' farm--he was a Democrat. There was another station on George Weiscarver's farm but Weiscarver didn't know it. Sam Fleming, a colored man lived there, and he attended to things. You see, it wouldn't do to run them in one direction. We never did that unless things looked risky; then I've known instances where they were shot right on till they got to Pittsburg. We crossed over to throw the pursuers off the scent.

"No, I never had anything to do on to Pittsburgh. I know plenty got there, and I know Cyprus Ross' slaves got through, for I've seen people who saw them, and some of them came back here."

 

"There was a very funny thing happened after Ross came back to town after giving up the chase." Here Ermin's eyes sparkled, and he shook with repressed laughter. "One of the party was riding a mule. You know the white stuff that is in them percussion caps. Well, he'd snapped his pistol and got the nipple full of it, and he got swearing mad and got something to pull the nipple out, and he was sitting on his mule, you know!---when he pulled the nipple, the pistol went off, and the bullet went right down between the mule's ears---deed it did---it's as true as gospel, I ain't telling no lie!---ha, ha! And killed the mule. It dropped right in its tracks and Ross he shouted, "Nine niggers and a mule gone!" Ermin's narrative ended with a ripple of laughter that was infectious.

 

Old George Wall's Story

John C. McNary, Esq. a prominent citizen of Canonsburg, in response to an inquiry referring to the operations of the Underground Railroad, writes:

"Old George Walls, a colored man living in Washington, was, I think, the general agent of the line in this county. I can remember distinctly that after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, with fearful penalities, George Walls brought to our place four young colored men who had run away from some place in the western part of Virginia, stating that their master and the United States Marshal were in Washington, eight miles distant. The boys trembled at the sound of a leaf. We had an old sheep shed, the mow full to the roof with hay into which these boys were put, digging down and covering themselves over with hay. They were kept for some days before it was thought safe to forward them. Finally George Walls appeared, said the way was clear and after bringing them to the house and feeding them and giving one a hat, they started."

 

Old George Walls, although 72, is still a sturdy man, able to do his day's work in the field. Born free, a mulatto, with a very strong face; all the lines indicate resolution. His straightforward, simple manners invite confidence. His frame is powerful, well-knit. In his time he had exhibited extraodinary strength. It is pleasant to record that this man, who is regarded by those in the secrets of the Underground Railroad as one of its most trusty, courageous and active conductors, owns the house he lives in, and another beside it on the corner of Chestnut and Lincoln streets, in Washington, PA. Sitting face to face with him, one easily recognizes in George Walls the qualities which fitted him for the peculiar work performed.

 

The tasks he voluntarily assumed required rare presence of mind, perfect self-command and tact---in a word, the degree of shrewdness which enables men to cope with the world and conduct hazardous enterprises to a successful issue. A man of strong mold and very honest is Old George Walls. In Washington men of all professions and in every station in life speak of him as one of the most trustworthy of men. Although he has lived the allotted time, he seems good for another score of years. His puzzled head, long, gray hair and massive features would prove a strong subject in the hands of an experienced photographer.

Old George was interviewed before Ermin Cain was spoken to. He was not prompted in any manner. Requested to relate some of the incidents which made the deepest impression upon him, he related off-hand, without pause or hindrance, (save when a name escaped his memory and his wife supplied the missing link,) some of he most thrilling stories the writer has ever heard. His memory of the extraordinary scenes he has witnessed, and in which he was a prominent figure, is so clear that his narratives present the most vivid pictures of the operations of the Underground Railroad that mind can conceive. The third story he related takes up the refugees who ran away from Cyprus Ross after they left Jimmy Hansbury's hands.

 

"One of the biggest parties I helped to forward, was a passel that came from somewhere out from Morgantown, Virginia. Anyhow they belonged to a man named Ross. No, I don't know as I ever knew his other name. I remember one thing, they talked a good deal about a terrible fight they had with their master on the road near Morgantown---somewhere near the State line. They had their corn knives with them, and if my recollection serves me, they were breaking some stone on the road, likely to mislead the people. But I know they fought, for I seen people who met Ross' party---about twenty, I reckon, when they were beat off with the stones; I think they were kept in the wood---there was a piece of rough country then down towards the State line, very close thicket they told me, same as we had here in many places. And they had a great deal of trouble, I recollect now getting into Waynesburg.

 

They found friends there and near West Alexander---thought it seems to me before that they went north. You see, their master made a terrible fuss over it. Mrs. McFarland knows more than I do about that. She's living here in town. Her husband---he's dead now---Major Sam McFarland, and a man named Adams, I think, brought them into town. The first I knew of them I got word from Major McFarland to be on the lookout for them. He lodged five at Skinner's---yes, he was a colored man, living on Walnut Street---and four at Tom Robinson's on Chestnut Street. Sam McFarland sent me word to come in and take them out. I was living out of town about four miles near Major Ewing's. I came in about one o'clock one morning, or along there, and took four of them out to William McNary's place. There was not much talking them times. Thye couldn't see me very well in the dark, and when we got out of town apiece, I overheard them talking among themselves. They were awfully afraid, though they were, as I found when I come to get a good, square look at them, plenty able to hoe their own row. They thought I was a white man." Here old George laughed at the recollection. "They were whispering and talking among themselves. They were afraid I was taking them the wrong way. I tell you, I never was more uncomfortable in my life than I was after that until I got them to McNary's. I knew it wouldn't do to talk much---and there wasn't any time to lose---so I just went ahead, never letting on I heard them. But I kept a sharp lookout---I was in mortal terror every minute. They might have hit me with a stone, or club, or fell on me and choked or beat me to death, and hid me in the thicket. I thought of all them things and walked tight on, making quick time. I don't know which was the worst scared that night, them poor fellows or me.

 

"It was pretty well on in the morning when I got to McNary's. I told them to stay back till I woke McNary's up.. I rapped, and after awhile Mrs. McNary asked, "Who's there?"

 

"I told her it was me. Then she came to the window. 'I want to make a contract with you, Mrs. McNary, to board some friends.' 'Oh!' says she---you see, she was mighty active--her heart was in it--then she came down, opened the door, and when we got in, and a light was struck, you never saw such a look as them poor fellows had."

 

'We took you for a white man,' they said. Then I told them I overheard their talk on the road. The next night I went into Washington and got the other five and took them out to Jim McNary's, near where I lived. I put them in the sheep shed---kept them there a week. I don't think Jim McNary knew they were there, till the boys began to feel lively, and he saw them dance 'Juba' on the top of the shed. He spoke to me about it, and I told him I'd move them. That was on Saturday evening. I promised to move them Monday.

 

"You see, the point was to move them all at once. Well, there was a man---'Squire Berry---hi name was John---wanted to help. Berry promised me he would deliver 'them goods' whenever they were ordered. I told him I guessed they were ready, and there was danger of sp'iling. The 'Squire was willing to do all he could, I went to Wm. H. McNary's and got the lot I left there and took them to Jarret's tavern, four miles off. I got Joe Brooks, a colored man, to agree to haul the whole party to Pittsburg. I sent word in to Pittsburgh to John Peck and Samuel Bruce, and they agreed to send a party out to Saw Mill, and Hill to meet them. Then I sent the lot at Jim McNary's to meet the four that was at Jarrett's, telling them how they would know each other when they met at the forks of the road.

Everything turned out right; they all got through to Saw Mill. Peck passed them on to Canade from Pittsburg. I know they all got through safe, for some of them came back here afterwards. I met them in Washington here, and one of that party is now teaching school down South.

 

"Yes, there was considerable expenses. It cost money to get that lot on to Pittsburgh. There was time and horse hire. "Squire Berry gave me thirty dollars to pay for different purposes---part of it went to Joe Brooks, to pay his hauling. I made arrangements--it wouldn't do for me to be known in it on the way to Pittsburgh. I had no excuse to be away from home--I had to be seen about in daylight. When people (there were plenty suspected I knew of these things) asked me if I had seen runaways, I told them I had and when Ross' party was around, I told them I had see the boys they wanted, and was helping them all I could, in a joking way; and that fooled them.

 

Austin Bryant's Story

Austin Bryant is employed at the Fulton Hotel, Washington. Rumor ascribes to Austin a knowledge of matters and things he disclaims. Unwittingly he completed the story begun (in the middle, if a bull may be pardoned) by Old George Walls, and pieced out by Ermin Cain from the place it should open until it fairly met Walls' story.

 

"I don't know as much about these matters as plenty of other people. I think Henry Bolden could tell you more--I know he could. You want to know the incident that impressed me most. Well, that happened, let me see, it was the year of the big frost. I think it was in 1859. I was working at the Monongahela House, when somebody woke me up and told me a man wanted to see me. It was about two o'clock in the morning. I went down, and out on First Street and saw a man named Tower Adams. Adams? Why he was a gunsmith--very active--took mighty active part in them days. He was a colored man and true as steel. He told me he had a party of nine at Jone's Ferry. He wanted me to help take them up as far as the Hand Street Bridge. He had to get back to Washington as soon as possible. I went down to the river and took them up to Hand Street! I didn't stay to talk none, but got back to the Monongahela House jsut as soon as I could, and went to bed again. It's been a good while ago, and has kind o' faded out of my mind, but I'm purty sure it was the year of the great frost."

 

Facts gleaned before these stories were related by the actors warrant the opinion that John Peck, Samuel Bruce and James McMasters, citizens of Pittsburg, forwarded Ross' slaves to Canada via Perrysville, Butler, Meadville, Mercer and Erie. Tis was one of the safest and speediest of the routes relied upon by the managers of the Underground Railroad; Indeed, as will be seen infurther articles, it may be termed a trunk line. Pittsburg as regarded as one of the hotbeds of Abolitionism; once here, refugees were deemed comparatively safe. John Peck, wigmaker and hairdresser, who enjoyed the esteem of all who knew him, rarely failed to extricate members of his race from the most perilous positions, and in cases requiring extraordinary exertion he had in Mr. James McMasters a shield that might be termed a rock of defense.

 

The Underground Railroad

From the Pittsburgh Chronicle-Telegraph

An article on the seventh page of this paper today, the first of a series on the subject, that of the underground railway, will awaken many thrilling memories in the old citizens of this region. And it may be said that the article breaks new ground in the field of history. The work of leading runaway blacks from slavery to freedom is remembered by but comparatively few and they are fast losing names and dates, while thrilling incidents, which illuminate history, were fast fading out of memory. In a few years more the opportunity of recording the story of the underground railway would have been lost. As it is now, the facts have to be obtained by long search over a large field, and by dint of repeated inquiry and and jogging the memories which have grown feeble. These articles will furnish important material for the future historian, as they have been written with conscientious care.

 

[The first of these articles will be found elsewhere in this issue of the Observer and we will publish the others from time to time as they appear. Editors Observer.]

 

The above article was transcribed by Patricia Stavovy from photocopies of original news article provided to W&J Professor Thomas Mainwaring, by the Washington County Historical Society, Washington, PA. February 4, 2005.

17 Mar 08---transcribed by Bill Davison