Tanner’s Alley, an important station on the Underground Railroad
(photo, c. 1911, courtesy of Pennsylvania State Archives)
By Jeff Falk
There was no “railroad” per se – no engine, no cars, no tracks. And it certainly wasn’t traveling under any ground.
Much in the same way that there were no “passengers,” no “conductors” and no “stations.”
But in the figurative sense, the Underground Railroad in Harrisburg was as real as it gets. We are, after all, referring to humans’ lives, their existence and their freedoms.
The presence and prevalence of the Underground Railroad in Harrisburg and Dauphin County before the Civil War is one of the most significant stories of an area rich in history. But it is a tale which, for the most part, is widely unknown.
That’s what makes telling it so important.
“I care so much about the city,” says Calobe Jackson, a local historian and an expert on African-American history in Harrisburg. “That’s why it’s so important to me. I grew up knowing the history of Harrisburg, and Harrisburg was a major station for the Underground Railroad. Conductors and people who worked for it need to be remembered. There are a lot of people who should be recognized.
“There are a group of historians who know about it. The ‘circle’ you might say,” continues Jackson. “But you’re right, there are a lot of people who don’t know about the underground railroad in Harrisburg. There’s a marker at Aberdeen and Fourth Streets, but other than that, there’s no indication that the Underground Railroad occurred around here. That’s why it’s important for historians to bring it out.”
In the middle of the 19th century, the Underground Railroad was a method of transporting runaway slaves from plantations in the southern states to liberty and sympathetic destinations in the north like Harrisburg. The fugitive slaves were sometimes known as “passengers,” supportive hosts were referred to as “conductors” and stops on the way north were called “stations.”
“The underground railroad is a great story,” says Jackson. “It’s romantic. It’s always fascinated people. People know about railroads, but it was a method of secretively moving slaves north. The conductors of the Underground Railroad were people who were sympathetic to the slaves’ plight and helped move them from one station to another. That’s what makes it fascinating. It’s an inspirational railroad, and some of the terminology being used reflects that.
“Some of the communication was done by mail,” adds Jackson. “Sometimes even telegraphs were used. They would use code words. They would refer to ‘passengers’ coming through. They didn’t use the word ‘slave.’”
From the 1850s to the beginning of the Civil War, the Underground Railroad flourished, and Harrisburg became a popular destination because of its location on the Susquehanna River and its proximity to points West, East and especially North. Harrisburg was a stop between places like Wrightsville and Cumberland County and sympathetic towns in northern Pennsylvania.
“Harrisburg is a center for transportation. It’s on a river,” says Jackson, who semi-regularly gives presentations at the National Civil War Museum. “Slaves could follow passageways North. They came up the Susquehanna River to Columbia and Wrightsville. The next stop in the trail going North would either be Pottsville or Wilkes-Barre. A lot of people associated with the Underground Railroad were abolitionists and active in anti-slavery societies. It was very well-organized.
“The Boiling Springs area in Cumberland County was a hot spot,” Jackson continues. “It was a station below Harrisburg where slaves would come through. Before the 1850s, once a slave got across the Mason-Dixon Line, they were basically free because slave catchers couldn’t come after them. But the 1850s was when the Underground Railroad really became active, because a law was passed that allowed slave catchers to come north. Catching slaves was a way for them to make a living. They were paid for their work.”
Jackson estimates that some 1,000 slaves passed through about 18-20 safe havens in Harrisburg during the height of the Underground Railroad’s popularity locally. Some even settled in Harrisburg, but ultimately their final destination became Canada.
“We’ll never know an exact number, but it was a huge figure,” says Jackson. “There was a famous case in Harrisburg in May of 1852, when a slave by the name of James Phillips was captured. He was arrested and taken to the county courthouse, and at that time, the commissioner would hear the trial. The question was: ‘Should he be freed or put back into slavery.’
“In this particular case, a riot broke out,” Jackson adds. “There was an anti-slavery society in Harrisburg and they raised a ransom to buy him. The value of the slave was what was important. People either wanted the slave returned or the value of the slave. It basically came down to buying the freedom of the slave.”
There were many slaves who never realized their dreams of freedom. And while there were plenty of Northerners who were willing to risk much to aid their flight, none had as much on the line as the slaves themselves.
Either way, everyone involved was willing to pay the high price for doing what was right.
“It is significant,” says Jackson. “There was a law passed that infuriated the anti-slave societies. The Underground Railroad was their way to protest it. They knew it was illegal. But it was an adventure they were ready to take. They saw the war coming, but they saw it as their obligation to help the slaves be free.
“Basically, the Underground Railroad was a northern thing,” continues Jackson. “It was a secret system of safe houses with sympathetic hosts, for many slaves to move to freedom. They followed rivers and railroads, and they used the North Star to guide them, and they passed through Pennsylvania. But they weren’t free until they got to Canada.”
And if history has taught us anything it’s that freedom is never free.