Uncovering the Underground Railroad

Did Lancaster County's secret sites leave any trace?

"Freedom Began Here," according to the Christiana Underground Railroad Center at Historic Zercher's Hotel. On Sept. 11, 1851, a Maryland plantation owner came here to retrieve escaped slaves and was killed, an event that became known as the Resistance of Christiana.

Credit: Karen C. von Clef, Zercher's Hotel

There's not much going on these days at the Landis House in Lancaster, Pa., but local historians and state planners would like to keep it around.

The empty stone house, now part of the Susquehannock State Park in southern Lancaster County was, according to some, a station on the Underground Railroad, the vast network of properties across the nation that helped freedom seekers move northward to escape persecution in the dark era of American slavery.

Preserving a dilapidated site like the Landis House can seem nearly impossible, but for property owners or organizations that can verify a connection to the Underground Railroad, there's help available from the National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom (NTF) program.

The Network to Freedom is the only program of its kind, where funding from the federal government, when appropriated by the U.S. Congress, can be approved on a competitive, matching grant basis to properties registered in its database. The funding can be used for physical improvements, additional research, or for the installation of exhibits and displays that explain the site's historical connection to the Underground Railroad.

To get certified, applicants need at least two credible sources that tie the site either to Underground Railroad activity, or to abolitionists known to have been active in aiding formerly enslaved people. That's easier said than done.

Underground Zero

Calling Lancaster County "Underground Zero" for its extensive activity in this chapter of American history, architectural historian Randolph Harris of Lancaster, Pa., suggests that the very term "underground railroad" was coined in Columbia, a town on the border between Lancaster and York counties.

In the decades before the Civil War, former slaves from the south used the border counties of southern Pennsylvania as a main pathway to freedom, often to Philadelphia, where they regularly received help in fleeing further north. As a result, Harris says, it's not uncommon to hear rumors about the history of a property in the Lancaster area.

The Landis House has stood empty since it became part of the park structure in 1959, and though state park planners have kept an eye on it, the building is in less-than-stellar condition. Park officials describe the stone structure as "crumbling," and agree that the deserted house is in no shape to be opened to the public.

State parks spokesman Bill Rosevear says officials are pretty much at a loss for what to do with the property, which he says is "in limbo." A new roof stabilizes the house from further deterioration, but the money to get it opened up, either as a rental or public space, is not on hand.

Historical evidence for the property's connection to the Underground Railroad is scant, Rosevear says, and though locals claim that a former owner of the property, Jacob Schoff, was an abolitionist who joined in harboring formerly enslaved people, officials have no proof.

Proof saved the Zercher's Hotel in Christiana. Famous for its role in the lead-up to the Civil War, the western Lancaster County town of Christiana has its own history as a "major spark" in the feud between the northern and southern states; on September 11, 1851, former slaves, along with several local Quakers, successfully resisted a Maryland plantation owner pursuing several individuals who had escaped.

Now Zercher's Hotel in Christiana, Pa., has its own museum to commemorate the property's role in the Underground Railroad, and much of the museum was funded with a grant assisted by the program. Harris worked on certifying the property in 2003, and said a grant from the federal government was matched by the state's Department of Community and Economic Development. The result was a $20,000 project that turned the former hotel into a museum and office of an active machine shop. Lou Bond, an officer in the hotel corporation, said since the museum is free of charge, the NTF certification and subsequent grant money was crucial.

"It wouldn't have happened," says Bond, adding that his family-owned business is trying to get another grant to print maps for visitors.

Zercher's hotel isn't the only Lancaster County site with NTF certification; another site is the grave of Thaddeus Stevens in Lancaster City. Stevens' former home and law office is being preserved in part, as planners consider the property's historical value while they are changing the face of downtown Lancaster.

The success of the Christiana, Columbia, and Lancaster City sites show how much can hang in the balance between historical records and the stories handed down over generations. Without proof, Underground Railroad sites can disappear, just as furtive figures once crossed Lancaster's open fields and faded, without a trace, into the shadows.

Read more about African American historical sites 

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Submitted by Carole at: October 2, 2008
A correction on Elmira, NY. We have five sites listed on the National Parks Network to Freedom Program. We have the First Baptist Church, the Langdon-Pratt Home, The Park Church, the Second Street Cemetery, and this year, the Woodlawn Cemetery. The John W. Jones Musuem is not in the program yet but he is involved in all the UGRR sites in Elmira.

Submitted by historicnearwestside.com at: October 2, 2008
We currently here in Elmira, NY (Civil War Prison Camp, "Hellmira") Have two current active Underground Railroad sites. The John W. Jones museum project and the "show" at the Elmira Community Arts. Keep up the good work and visit our history. www.HistoricNearWestside.com