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Charmed Life

Mystery Train

Image ourtesy Louis Diggs

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 11/21/2001

To their credit, the folks who ran the legendary Underground Railroad through Baltimore knew how to cover their tracks. Their secrecy, however, poses problems for historians. While it's known that thousands of fugitives fled from slavery in Baltimore, and that many more passed through the area en route from the South, there's no physical evidence of their sojourn here. There might be hundreds of existing buildings where fugitives found protection at one time or another; we just don't know where they are. There's plenty of rumor, guesswork, and speculation about specific "stations" along the metaphoric rail line, but the frustrating fact is that not even one site in the city can be reliably identified as having served as a sanctuary for runaways.

In the absence of facts, Baltimoreans have filled the gap with folklore. The location most often cited as a possible Underground Railroad hideout is the historic Orchard Street Church, off Druid Hill Avenue. The African-American congregation at Orchard Street dates back to 1825, and the first church building rose in 1837. A second church was built in 1859, five years before slavery was abolished in Maryland. The present structure dates from 1882.

Aside from the church's longevity as a black institution, what sparked talk about the Underground Railroad at Orchard Street was the discovery of a hidden tunnel during the building's renovation a decade ago. Archaeologists and historians who studied the tunnel, however, concluded that it was probably built around 1903 as a heat conduit. Nonetheless, it's highly likely that members of the church were involved in sheltering fugitives--just not inside the church building. As Nancy Brennan, former director of the Baltimore City Life Museums, asserted in a Sun article, "You'd hide them in barns and attics and basements and places people wouldn't look."

Other sites linked with the Underground Railroad include two other houses of worship and a Fells Point eatery. At the old Friends Meeting House on East Fayette Street in Old Town, speculations center on a trap door, crawlspace, and hidden room discovered during recent renovations. Again, the circumstances seem plausible: Baltimore's Quakers took a formal stand against slavery in 1777, and the Fayette Street building (now known as the McKim Center) was built in 1781. Still, it seems unlikely that a Friends meeting, in that era, would have reached consensus on using their building for an illegal purpose.

The third church-related site is the burial ground underneath Westminster Hall (formerly the Westminster Presbyterian Church) at West Fayette and Green streets near the University of Maryland's downtown campus. The church was built circa 1850. The Very Quiet Baltimoreans, a guide to local cemeteries, reports that its catacombs are said to have harbored runaways between 1858 and 1861.

Rumor of a hideout at Josephine's restaurant at Fleet and Duncan streets in Fells Point is dismissed by owner John Ryan, who says the tunnels under 2112 Fleet St. were built for beer. The building dates to 1851, when it was the original home of the National Brewing Co. It's improbable but not impossible that the folks who brought us Natty Boh once hid fugitive slaves in these chilly "lagering cellars."

The speculation that springs up over seemingly any old-enough building with a hidden subterranean space ignores some important facts: The Underground Railroad was no more underground, in the literal sense of the word, than it was a railroad (although escaping slaves did use above-ground railroads and underground shelters at times). The dramatic name predisposes people to look for tunnels and crawlspaces.

The name also implies the existence of regular "stations" and the movement of large groups of people, but firsthand slave narratives and newspaper advertisements of the time paint a different picture, at least in Baltimore. Thousands of "runaway slave" ads analyzed by Ralph Clayton, microfilm specialist at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's central branch, attest that people typically fled slavery alone or in very small groups.

Much rarer are first-person accounts explaining how they got away and where they stayed. One former slave, James Wiggins, told 20th-century historians that he was smuggled out of a guardhouse on Paca Street by a German shoemaker who did business with slave traders. Hidden in a covered wagon, Wiggins was taken to a house on Sharp Street, and later moved to Frederick. Another narrative concerns a family that fled Anne Arundel County and hid temporarily in the home of a sympathetic white family on Ross Street (now part of Druid Hill Avenue). Some runaways were ingenious, such as the unnamed "negro servant girl" who, according to a contemporary news story, had herself boxed and mailed to York, Pa., in 1845, four years before Henry "Box" Brown became famous for doing the same thing in Richmond, Va. Another Baltimore man, William Peel Jones, was boxed and sent by steamboat to Philadelphia. Larger group escapes, sometimes referred to as "stampedes," were relatively rare, Clayton says.

Meanwhile, as the city's own slaves were fleeing north, some fugitives from other areas simply stopped in Baltimore and blended in with the city's free African-American population, which numbered in the tens of thousands prior to the Civil War.

There are other tantalizing but tiny bits of information suggesting what might have been. Robert Purvis, who headed a formal Underground Railroad group in Philadelphia, wrote in 1838 that "two market women who lived in Baltimore" were his group's "most efficient helpers or agents." For all we know, there might have been a regular chain of secret hostels operating in Baltimore. From the existing record, however, the image that emerges is one of a continuous tide of freedom-seeking humanity--something more haphazard than the "railroad" label suggests, but no less heroic, and no less fascinating.

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