By Milt Diggins
Myths and legends abound about the Underground Railroad. Old houses with a secluded space set off speculation that it was a station on the Underground Railroad, despite the lack of documentation. Quilts hanging up in yards supposedly gave secret signals to escaping slaves. The Underground Railroad was presumably a vast sophisticated network that brought thousands upon thousands of people out of slavery. The traditional history of the Underground Railroad justly heralded the efforts of white men and women who helped freedom seekers, but often neglected to mention the free blacks who assisted and the freedom seekers who escaped on their own initiative.
Milt Diggins, 2nd from left, meets with members of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture
Broadly defined to include individual efforts to seek freedom as well as organized and spontaneous efforts to assist freedom seekers, the Underground Railroad played an important role in our national heritage. In the 1990s the national government recognized the need for an accurate depiction of the Underground Railroad in order to preserve that heritage. Congress charged the National Park Service with organizing and coordinating a national effort to gather and verify the accuracy of Underground Railroad stories tied to sites and trails, and to promote partnerships and educational programs to share those stories.
The National Park Service website Network to Freedom (http://www.nps.gov/subjects/ugrr/index.htm) provides a fuller explanation of their Underground Railroad Project. The website also features a database of designated Underground Railroad sites, facilities, and programs. Teachers and organizations offering programs can find a wealth of educational resources. Another section of the website presents Underground Railroad history through essays, individual stories, research reports, a map, a timeline, and multimedia.
Cecil County did not have any officially designated UGRR sites. In April, the National Park Service, in partnership with the Maryland Department of Tourism, asked if I would select, research, and verify the UGRR connection with a few county sites or trials, and submit detailed applications in July. If the applications are approved, the National Park Service will officially designate the proposed sites as UGRR sites. I focused on transportation links for the nominations.
Location has made Cecil County a significant transportation link on the east coast. Waterways and roadways in Cecil County have carried traffic between Philadelphia and Baltimore ever since the colonial period, and in the 1830s one of the nation’s earliest railroads linked the two cities. This transportation heritage offered the best candidates for UGRR nominations. Frenchtown, the Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna River, the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal have documented UGRR stories. I researched and wrote up applications for two obvious trails used by UGRR conductors and freedom seekers: The Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad station and steamboat ferry at Perryville, and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
If the applications are approved, summaries of 200 words or less will be available on the Network to Freedom website, and the detailed applications are available on request through the website. The following are the summaries for the two nominations (The C&D summary is slightly larger than the one on the application):
The Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad Station and Steam Ferry Landing site in Perryville, Maryland, at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, is relevant to the resistance to slavery. The site is associated with famous and lesser known escapes, and one kidnapping and rescue of a free Pennsylvania citizen. At the Susquehanna River, trains stopped in Havre de Grace, passengers and cars crossed on the railroad ferry, and resumed their journey from the Perryville station. Frederick Douglass escaped on this railroad in 1838, and the Crafts in 1848. Charlotte Giles and Harriet Eglin escaped from Baltimore on this railroad. Henry “Box” Brown was freighted across on the ferry in 1849. Rachel Parker was kidnapped on the last day of 1851 by Thomas McCreary, who Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists referred to as “the notorious kidnapper from Elkton.” Part of the drama of her abduction, her rescue, and her pleas for freedom unfolded at Perryville. In 1853, Aaron Digges, fleeing from a Baltimore butcher, entered the train at the Susquehanna crossing, but he fell into the hands of Constable Thomas McCreary. In 1854, Henry fled from John Stump, who owned the land at Perry Point, by taking the train out of Perryville.
The US Army Corps of Engineers currently owns and operates the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. This canal, build in 1829 by investors, provided a route for freedom seekers on steamboats, schooners, and other water craft. Boats entered at Elk River in Cecil County, Maryland and exited at Delaware City, New Castle County, Delaware. This eliminated approximately 300 nautical miles between Baltimore and Philadelphia. This Chesapeake Bay to Delaware River route to Philadelphia was also safer for smaller watercraft than a voyage into the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay. William Still and Sydney Gay recorded escapes on steamboats and schooners passing through the canal from Baltimore, Norfolk, and Richmond. Local newspapers reported unsuccessful canal-related escapes, and complained about suspicious Philadelphia oyster boats assisting escapes. When some freedom seekers fled from the lower Eastern Shore, a newspaper commented that the close watch kept on the canal would make it difficult for them to pass that way.
Part of the c hart of the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays showing the Upper Peninsula. Published by Fielding Lucas Jr., Baltimore, 1840. Source: http://www.oldmapsonline.org