Erie's Underground Railroad

Not an actual railroad at all, the Underground Railroad was a series of complex secret routes, churches, institutions and privately owned homes that aided runaway slaves on the dangerous journey north. Pennsylvania, the first free state north of the Mason-Dixon line, provided many entry points to freedom.

Upper Canada had banned the importation of new slaves on July 9, 1793, and all slavery throughout the British Empire ended with the Slavery Abolition Act of August 1, 1834.

The United States, however, remained bitterly divided.

The Underground Railroad was not run by any single organization or person. Rather, it consisted of many individuals — many whites but predominantly black — who knew only of the local efforts to aid fugitives and not of the overall operation. Still, it effectively moved hundreds of slaves northward each year — according to one estimate, the South lost 100,000 slaves between 1810 and 1850.

From around 1830, until the end of the Civil War, an influx of runaway slaves came through Erie seeking their freedom, not in Erie, but across of Lake Erie, in Canada where they would be legally freed from bondage. The city of Erie was one of many sanctuaries throughout the county, which included Girard, Wesleyville, Waterford and Meadville, in Crawford County. These sanctuaries were mainly the homes of abolitionists and churches.

With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act by Congress in 1850, slaves who had escaped to the northern states were in immediate danger of being forcibly abducted and brought back to southern slavery. Slave catchers from the South operated openly in the northern states, where their brutality quickly alienated the local population. Federal officials were also best carefully avoided, as the influence of plantation owners from the then more populous South was powerful in Washington, D.C., at the time.

Slaves therefore had to lie low during the day — hiding, sleeping, or pretending to be part of the local citizenry — moving north by night. The danger of encountering US federal marshals would end once the Canadian border had been crossed, but the passengers of the Underground Railroad would need to remain in Canada (and keep a watchful eye for slave catchers crossing the border illegally in violation of Canadian law) until slavery was ended via the American Civil War of the 1860s.

The majority in Erie was lukewarm on the subject of slavery; most people disapproved, but slavery had their supporters in Erie, and slave catchers were free to operate within the county. In fact, some of Erie's early settlers and prominent citizens were slave owners themselves — Rufus Reed, John Grubb, the Kelso family, Pierre Simon Vincent Hamot, and many others. Competing newspapers at the time revealed a deeply divided citizenry; yet Erie, from its free black communities to its middle-class white society, rose in defiance, in small groups of ordinary people, defying race and gender — and in some cases, the law — in what would later be known as America's first civil rights movement.

Erie’s newspapers were instrumental in driving the abolition movement in the county. Erie's Henry Catlin used the power of the pen to promote his anti-slavery views. From his second-floor office in the Lowry Building at East Fifth and French streets, Catlin turned out weekly issues of his newspaper, the True American, from 1854 to 1861, for three cents a copy. "It is a medium of free discussion for all manner of men and women, except slaveholders, rum sellers, and codfish aristocrats," he wrote. Fugitives were sometimes concealed in newspaper bins until it was safe for them to sail away to Canada.

When Catlin invited abolitionist Frederick Douglass to speak in Erie on April 24, 1858, an angry mob threatened to run both of them out of town. Douglass showed up anyway and delivered a speech, entitled Unity of the Human Race, at Park Hall. Lovisa-Card Catlin, founder of the Arts Club of Erie, who spearheaded the effort to purchase Frederick Childe Hassam's painting Summer Afternoon, Isles of Shoals for the community, married the widower Henry Catlin, a man of culture, in 1893. Catlin is credited with coming up with the name Kahkwa for Erie's Kahkwa Club — that having been the name of a tribe of Indians that were part of the Erie tribe that frequented Erie County, when the country was a forest.

The abolition movement in Erie was centered in New Jerusalem, a neighborhood that ran north of West Sixth Street to the bayfront, from Sassafras west to about Cherry Street. In the 1830s, white abolitionist William Himrod, a partner in a successful local ironworks, bought up property behind Millionaires' Row, divided it into small tracts, and sold it to free blacks; thus formed a community known as New Jerusalem, complete with a church, school and many private residences.

William Himrod used his home, at East Second and French Streets, to house Himrod's French Street Sabbath School for Colored Children. According to family diaries, Himrod and his wife provided food and a temporary haven for freedom seekers on their way to Canada. Jean Himrod Stull Cunningham, artist, naturalist and environmental steward, who passed away in 2011, was among William Himrod's many descendants still living in the area.

William Himrod’s home was an addition that was added to Dickson Tavern in 1841. It was often alleged that the tunnels under the Dickson Tavern were part of the Underground Railroad, but the claims have since been disputed. The abolition movement was not in the habit of keeping records. Without documentation, a logical argument can be made for and against the tunnels beneath the tavern having been used to transport slaves to the waterfront.

Far from the passive victims described in antebellum history books, free blacks in the North, many of them former slaves or indentured servants, had the reason, and the resources, to help. They worked as laborers, started businesses, pursued education and established churches, which were at the heart of family and community life. The Wesleyan Methodist Colored Church, the forerunner to St. James African American Episcopal Church, was originally built on West Third Street, between Walnut and Chestnut. Later, it doubled as a school.

Separated from downtown Erie by a large ravine, New Jerusalem became a hotbed for anti-slavery activity. Enslaved persons who managed to break free knew they could live and work openly among their own people. Many of Erie's black families have roots in New Jerusalem. Erie City Council renamed a portion of West Front Street, between Sassafras and Myrtle, in honor of the Lawrence family, whose leadership in education and music has inspired generations.

Barber Shops in the past were a place, while getting a haircut, or not, where one would go to exchange information and keep in contact with others in the community; therefore, it should be no surprise that a barber shop played a vital role in New Jerusalem. One such shop was Vosburgh barbershop. Shortly after arriving in Erie with his wife Abigail, African American Robert Vosburgh opened a barbershop at 314 French Street, not far from the Himrod Mission. In the Vosburgh barbershop, anti-slavery activists kept an eye on the comings and goings around town. Vosburgh could change a fugitive's appearance, provide a new suit of clothes, and put him in touch with an Underground Railroad conductor who could take him to Canada, either along the lakeshore or by boat.

Many of the Vosburghs' nine children, who were educated at Himrod's school, became part of Erie's emerging middle class and went on to successful careers in real estate and railroading. Two sons, one a porter, and another a second cook on the Steamship Erie, were among the more than 250 passengers killed in 1841, when the elegant ship exploded in flames on a return trip from Buffalo.

Just three doors from Vosburgh's Barber Shop was the office of Pierre Simon Vincent Hamot, a successful banker and salt trader, whose black servant mysteriously disappeared soon after Vosburgh moved into the neighborhood. Like all black men in Pennsylvania, Vosburgh had been stripped of his right to vote, but he would find other ways to bring about change. The Hamot house, at 302 French Street, is now home to the Hamot Health Foundation.

A longtime friend of Vosburgh was Hamilton Waters, a former slave from Somerset County, Maryland, who had hired himself out in order to buy his mother's freedom as well as his own. Once he arrived in Erie, he worked as a clothes presser in Vosburgh's Barber Shop. Waters lived with his family at 137 East Third Street, between French and Holland. He was often seen performing his duties as the city's lamplighter, with his grandson in tow.

One night in the summer of 1858, Jehiel Towner of Erie contacted Frank Henry of Harborcreek about helping three passengers escape to Canada. The next night at about dusk, Hamilton Waters brought the family to Frank Henry in a wagon. A skiff was waiting at the mouth of Four Mile Creek to take them across the lake to Canada. "The driver, one Hamilton Waters, was a free mulatto, known to everybody around Erie," Frank Henry wrote in his diary, "He had brought a little boy with him as a guide, for he was almost blind as a bat."

Waters' determination to secure his release from slavery, provide for his family, and assist freedom seekers helped to shape the character of one of America's most influential composers, Harry Thacker Burleigh. Burleigh would go on to study at the National Conservatory of Music in New York. His grandfather's plantation songs would someday reach an international audience.

The Harry T. Burleigh Society, founded by the late Charles Kennedy Jr., brings Burleigh's songs and stories to local schools, churches and special events. Erie City Council renamed East Third Street, between French and Holland, Harry Burleigh Way, in recognition of his family's contributions.

Some of the best-documented Underground Railroad stories are found in the diaries of Frank Henry, who routinely stowed runaways in the old Wesleyville Methodist Church, which since has been demolished. His diaries were the basis of numerous stories by H.U. Johnson, publisher of Lakeshore Home Magazine, who reconstructed stories of the Underground Railroad in the 1880s, after the danger of releasing the information had passed.

The local Underground Railroad story includes many other people and places throughout the Lake Erie Region, research and the documentation is far from being finished.

The old Wesleyville Methodist Church at 3306 Buffalo Road
The old Wesleyville Methodist Church at 3306 Buffalo Road. Frank Henry routinely stowed runaways in the old Church, which since has been demolished.