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Susquehanna Life

Pennsylvania’s Underground Railroad History

The Old Lancaster County Jail, where a marker will be placed to commemorate the actions of Sheriff Dave Miller.

By Stephanie Kalina Metzger

Contemporary photos credit: Photographs courtesy of Randolph Harris, Lancaster.
For historical images photo credit: From the collection of Randolph Harris.

Those familiar with the Underground Railroad know that it wasn’t an actual railroad, but a means by which African American slaves escaped to the free states and Canada during the early-to-mid 19th century. Pennsylvania, it turns out, paved the way for African American slaves seeking freedom.

The term Underground Railroad was ushered in around 1831 as a reference to the clandestine, ever-evolving network of safe houses, hiding places and escape routes designed to help slaves escape servitude.

The courageous individuals who guided the fugitive slaves were known as “conductors.” Hiding places were referred to as “stations,” “safe houses” and “depots.” Those who operated them were known as “stationmasters.”

Many routes stretched west through Ohio to Indiana and Iowa. Others headed north through Pennsylvania into New England, or through Detroit on their way to Canada.

Nearly 3,000 individuals were said to have assisted the refugees over the years, despite the risk of heavy fines and jail sentences. At its peak, approximately 1,000 slaves per year were estimated to have escaped from slave-holding states by way of the Underground Railroad.  In tribute to Lancaster’s role in the history of the Underground Railroad, Lancaster walking tours feature four new historical markers affiliated with this testament to the human spirit. 

Pennsylvania’s role

According to Randolph Harris, a consulting historian and heritage conservation advocate, Pennsylvania paved the way for African American slaves seeking freedom. In fact, Pennsylvania was the first state in North America to abolish slavery.

“Pennsylvania is not only the keystone state of the nation, but also of the abolitionist movement,” Harris said. “It originated here and was systematized here.  Our state was a welcoming presence for white anti-slavery abolitionists, free African Americans and those who were formerly enslaved.” 

Thomas R. Ryan, president of, said Lancaster’s status as an Underground Railroad heritage site has been gaining prominence over the years.

“There has been more original research on the Underground Railroad in the past two decades than in the past four or five,” he said.

This diligence has earned the recognition and support of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service, which recently awarded and the African American Historical Society of South Central Pennsylvania a grant to cover costs of research, design, fabrication and installation of two outdoor markers and two interior graphic display panels to help tell the story of the role of the Underground Railroad in the area.

“We found the project to be very exciting and feel that it will advance the goals of preserving the history of the Underground Railroad,” said Diane Miller, national program manager of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

The sites picked for installation of the outdoor markers follows.

The Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith Historic Site

A historical marker will be installed inside the storefront windows of the Kleiss Tavern at the corner of South Queen and East Vine streets. The panels will explain the events that occurred in 1848 that documented the property as a safe house for the Underground Railroad during the time Stevens and Smith lived there. According to Harris, Stevens was known to provide slaves food, shelter and directions to the next safe house to the east.  Lydia Hamilton became well known in her own right, as Stevens’ African American confidante and property manager.

“She was the great woman behind the great man,” Harris said.

When Stevens died, Hamilton inherited $5,000 from his estate and used it as a down payment to purchase the property.

“It’s stories such as these that demonstrate the importance of research, preservation and educating the public,” said Harris, adding that the house was once targeted for demolition by the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority.

Fulton Opera House

Opposite the Fulton Opera House is a sidewalk-mounted sign to mark the site of the Old Lancaster County Jail. The marker tells the story of Sheriff “Dare Devil Dave” Miller who in 1835 secretly released two African-American women that were imprisoned by bounty hunters. Miller’s actions were kept secret for 50 years.

Thaddeus Stevens’ Grave

Located at North Mulberry and West Chestnut Street, the marker will shed light on why Stevens chose to be laid to rest there. It was said that shortly before his death he realized that he had purchased a plot in a “whites-only” cemetery. Incensed, he purchased another at the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery, which, at the time was considered remote and held no racial restrictions. Visitors can read his creed on equality, which is carved into his headstone.

Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad Station

A marker will be placed at the corner of North Queen and East Chestnut streets within the entrance of the parking garage at the former site of the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad Station. Privately owned freight cars that ran on this train line and stopped at the station were outfitted with false walls to secretly transport slaves to Philadelphia.

According to Harris, these four markers are just the beginning of a long-term goal to install about 20 more.

“The grant makes possible these permanent explanations for the public to learn about the broader story of African American heritage in the city of Lancaster,” he said.

African American Heritage Walking Tours

A new season of walking tours continues in Lancaster on the first Saturday of the month, through November 3. Sponsored by the African American Historical Society of South Central Pennsylvania, the tours will feature 12 locations around the downtown area.

The 90-minute tours, held at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., will begin at the Lancaster City Business Center at 38 Penn Square. For more information, contact Randolph Harris at (717) 808-2941.

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