Underground Railroad History in the County

Donated by Lisa Slaski

Source: "Historical Sketches Of Franklin County And Its Several Towns," Frederick J. Seaver, Published By J. B. Lyon Company, Albany, Ny, 1918


The underground railroad had existed for years before it was given its name, but without a fixed date of establishment, as its operations were begun in a small way simply as scattered and individual undertaking, without organization. Association. with it involved pitiful hardship in many instances, and serious danger in all, for participation in its work in any way was a crime under the federal law, punishable by heavy fines or imprisonment or both, and even meant death if the offender were detected anywhere in the South. As time passed, and the growing abuses and cruelties of slavery outraged more and more the humane impulses and consciences of men, it came to be worked with system and on larger and continually broadening lines. How many were connected with it no one ever knew with accuracy, though the names of more than three thousand of its workers were gathered and listed after slavery had been abolished; and doubtless there were still other thousands whose activities and identification with it escaped disclosure. The really flourishing period of the movement was between 1840 and 1860, but occasion for its continuance having ceased with emancipation during the civil war its collapse followed naturally. One or more of its ramifications extended into Franklin county.

In the beginning, and for years thereafter, the work of the underground railroad consisted solely in some courageous and fanatical abolitionist now and then giving succor and concealment to a single fugitive slave who by chance and good fortune had won his way by stealth and in terror out of the South. Then, after a time, a free black or eventually a white man of the crusader type and spirit, taking his life in his hands, would steal occasionally to a plantation, and unfold a method by which a slave or a group of slaves might win their way to freedom, or at least to a northern hamlet or city where it was promised that they should be aided in further flight. Gradually the blacks came to understand that if only they could make their own way out of slave territory, help would await them north of Mason and Dixon's line to smuggle them into Canada, where pursuit could not reach them. Thousands thus escaped; no one knows how many. In a single village in Canada there was a colony of three thousand of them at one time, and in many others there were considerable numbers.

The lines of flight lay principally through Pennsylvania, New York, New England, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, literally gridironing the country in some sections. Probably the busiest of the primary depots in the North was the city of Philadelphia, where the fugitive blacks foregathered singly and in companies. They came overland on foot, hiding by day in cornfields, forests or outbuildings; by shipment in boxes forwarded by whatever conveyance could be had, and invoiced as "goods," "property," "hams," etc., with consignment to one or another well known abolitionist who had been advised in advance to expect the packages; and by concealment in the cargoes of vessels sailing under sympathetic skippers between Southern ports and Philadelphia. Sometimes, though not often, as many as fifteen or twenty would arrive together. From Philadelphia they were sent largely to New York city, whence they would continue as opportunity could be made into New England or up the Hudson and along into Central or Northern New York, though comparatively few took the route to this county. Elmira was also an important receiving and distributing point.

Those connected with the underground railroad who contributed to keep it alive, but were not themselves active workers, were known as "stockholders;" those who accompanied and guided the fugitives as "conductors;" and those who simply harbored and concealed them as "station agents." So secret and furtive was it in its organization and operations that often one worker did not know who his associate or coadjutor was, the consideration of self-protection moving men to hide their identity. Yet it has become known since slavery was abolished that one single participant in the business aided three thousand slaves to escape, another twenty-five hundred, and others correspondingly large numbers. Gerrit Smith was active both as a "stockholder" and as a "station agent," and was at no pains to conceal the fact. While most of those whom he assisted in one or the other or in both of these capacities were directed into Canada via the Central New York and Oswego route, it is understood that some were dispatched, first, to the negro colony which Mr. Smith had founded at North Elba, or perhaps to one or another of the negro families which he had located in the town of Franklin. What further disposition was made of them is mainly a matter of conjecture, but there can be no reasonable doubt that some of them remained permanently at North Elba or in Franklin, while others were brought to Malone, and transported thence to Canada.

It is certain that one line of the underground which was considerably used ran to St. Albans, Vt., and that another, less known and not as often employed, came to and passed out of Malone, but where the latter began and the course that it followed is unknown. It is not conceivable that it was an extension of the St. Albans branch, for a fugitive arrived at that place would be as near to Canada as if at Malone, and it would only jeopardize him unnecessarily to bring him from there here. Nevertheless, of all of the underground railroad branches that have been mapped authoritatively by those who have investigated and made a study of the matter, no other is plotted in this vicinity. It seems, therefore, that it must be that Malone was a station that was only infrequently used, and that the line leading to it was kept with particular secrecy. But that there was such a line is not to he questioned, though I have succeeded in only a few instances in establishing conclusively its existence and use.

A former Malone resident whose memory extended back to 1845 stated a few years ago that many of the negroes to whom Gerrit Smith deeded homes in the town of Franklin reached their properties via Malone, having come here by way of Plattsburgh or Ogdensburg; and mingled in the throng, which was composed mainly of free blacks, was hid now and then an escaped slave. The late Henry Jones, who was sexton of St. Mark's Church for many years and a harness maker, and the first Mrs. Jones were in the latter class. Mrs. Jones was a bit unbalanced mentally and a good deal of a termagant, who had no inclination for a life in the wilderness, and insisted that her grant was to land in the village of Malone. The old Miller House, on the site of the present Hotel Flanagan, appealed particularly to her fancy, and she actually ordered Mr. Miller, the proprietor, out of it, so that she might take possession! After her death Mr. Jones married a Morehouse from Franklin - a very different type of woman.

But Mr. and Mrs. Jones were the only fugitive slaves who risked locating in Malone, the others of that class preferring to continue into Canada or to lose themselves in the Adirondack forests. Alexander Hazard was one of the latter, and lived undisturbed for many years in the vicinity of Bloomingdale. John Thomas and Jesse Runyon were two others. Thomas was the grandfather of the second Mrs. Jones. The story used to be current in Franklin Falls, Vermontville and Bloomingdale that his former master located him, and sent agents to apprehend him and return him to slavery; that these actually proceeded as far as Franklin Falls on their mission, but that upon being warned there that Thomas was armed and would never be taken alive, and that the local whites would stand by him, with certainty that someone would be killed, they abandoned their purpose, and turned back. Runyon returned, to the South voluntarily during the civil war.

Mrs. Horace D. Hickok, foster daughter of Phineas Peck, who had a millinery store and residence where the wholesale grocery of A. G. Crooks & Co. now is, remembers distinctly that when a child she was awakened by voices one night, and that, peering through a stovepipe hole, she saw her father and a black man in conversation in the room below. The next morning, however, no one was to be seen about the house except members of the family, and when Mrs. Hickok questioned her father regarding what she had seen and heard in the night he put her off. Subsequently she understood that Malone was visited occasionally now by one and then by another Methodist clergyman ostensibly to conduct a church service, or assist at one, but in reality to inform some "station agent" here that upon a specified date an escaped slave would arrive, to be harbored possibly for a day or two, or perhaps for only a few hours, and then, when opportunity could be made, to be hustled into Canada. Mr. Peck, until a few months ago living at Bridgton, N. J., a nonogenarian, had no recollection in his later years of the incident which Mrs. Hickok relates, nor of himself having been an underground operator. But such an affair could not fail to leave an ineradicable impression on the mind of a child, and I think that there can be no mistake in Mrs. Hickok's story. Knowing Mr. Peck as I did, I should class him as probably a "station agent" only, and not as a "conductor." He was certainly an abolitionist, and of course his disagreement with Mrs. Hickok concerning the incident was wholly a failure of memory.

In a letter a few years ago to the Franklin County Historical Society the late Marshall Conant, referring to Jabez Parkhurst, an eminent lawyer in his day, residing at Fort Covington. said: "Mr. Parkhurst was an ardent abolitionist, and many a runaway slave was harbored and fed at his home." I have before me the original record of the organization of the Franklin Anti-Slavery Society in 1836, and of its proceedings in annual meetings from that date until 1848. Mr. Parkhurst was president of the society for a number of terms, and was the candidate of the Liberty party in 1843 for the Assembly - which is sufficient confirmation of Mr. Conant's characterization of him as an abolitionist. But his residence was hardly half a mile from the Canadian border, and it seems strange that he should have taken the risk of providing refuge there for a fugitive when it would have been so easy and apparently so much safer simply to have hurried him over the line. Nevertheless, David Streeter, now of Chicago and California, but who lived as a boy on the same street with Mr. Parkhurst, tells me that he remembers distinctly that Mr. Parkhurst's home was a refuge for fugitive blacks. Mr. Streeter himself saw a number of them there, two or three at a time occasionally, and recalls that wagons often rumbled past his home late at night, and that when they were heard people commented that a train was moving on the underground railroad. Apparently Mr. Parkhurst was at little pains to conceal his work.

Though it is a digression, it is yet worth while to list here the names of some of the members of the local anti-slavery society: Jabez Parkhurst, Alva Orcutt, George. Tobey (the father of Henry M.), Rev. Bliss Burnap, James H. Holland, Ira Spencer, Amasa Townsend, Jonathan Wallace, Ebenezer Leonard, Sylvester Langdon, Simeon C. Harwood, Thomas S. Paddock, Thomas R. Powell, Leonard Conant, Rev. Anthony Case, Jehiel Berry, Philip Schoolcraft, Solon Perrin, Timothy Beaman, Oliver Wescott, Henry Longley, Milo Hawley, Horace Dickinson, Truman Bell, Rev. Charles Bowles (himself half negro), Samuel C. Drew, Ophir Conant, Rev. Ashbel Parmelee, William Mason, Simeon Bicknell, Rev. J. E. Quaw, George A. Cheney, George H. Hutton, Rev. Silas Woodruff, Albon H. Hitchcock, Rev. Stephen Paddock, Rev. A. Millar, and Rev. Charles Johnson.

The names George H. Hutton of Malone and George A. Cheney of Fort Covington used to be connected with the underground, but whether they were among its actual operators I am unable to learn with certainty. Doctor Parmelee was quite the stamp of man to have been in the business, reckless of personal risk or consequences, if opportunity offered or could be created, and if his conscience so impelled. A son of Mr. Cheney, now living at Fon-du-Lac, Wis., writes in reply to my inquiry that he does not know that his father "was ever engaged in securing freedom to runaway slaves any further than contributing and advising with others how such interests could best be prosecuted," adding that his father, Jabez Parkhurst and Daniel Noble were the three principal abolitionists of the little village, and bore the stigma of "nigger lovers" for quite a long time. "We had a library all of anti-slavery publications which were distributed around among the villagers." Mr. Cheney tells further of a cartoon which he remembers to have seen, showing a dancing party composed of both whites and blacks, all mingling on terms of equality in a jolly time, and the above names lettered over the heads of three whites. It is remembered by a number of people still living at Fort Covington that boys used to blacken their faces, and call at Mr. Cheney's house at night, supplicating help because they were runaway slaves. One of the boys was Allan M. Mears, now of Malone, who informs me that Mr. Cheney made no offer to assist him beyond pointing out the road that led to Dundee.

Rev. Stephen Paddock, a local Methodist preacher, who lived about where the jail farm is, a mile south of the village, and who died in 1858, is shown by letters still in possession of his descendants to have been a "stockholder" in the underground railroad, and from remarks made by him or by Mrs. Paddock, which are remembered only vaguely, is believed 'to have been a "station agent" also.

Mrs. Marcellus A. Leonard, daughter of Carlos Taylor, who lived just north of the Barnard bridge, on the road to Fort Covington, and only a mile or so from that militant operator, Major Dimick, remembers that when a young child a negro came to her home and begged a night's lodging. He had no guide or conductor, and told his story to Mr. Taylor privately - the latter refusing to disclose it at the time to his family; but it was made known later that the negro was a runaway slave, making his way on foot to Canada. He was harbored over night, and directed on his way to Fort Covington.

Major Dimick, 'who lived nearly two miles north of Malone village, in the large house on the top of the hill near the Byron M. Spencer farm, on the Fort Covington road, was not only an extreme antislavery man, but a militant one as well, and his daughter, Mrs. Charles Fury, now residing in. Westville, remembers clearly more than one occasion when an escaped slave was concealed in the cellar of the house - sometimes for a few hours, and at others for a day or more. Then the major would hitch his horses at midnight to a lumber wagon, place the fugitive in it, cover him with hay or straw, and drive him safely into Canada. Mrs. Fury was not old enough at the time to be informed, or at least does not now recall, how the fugitives reached asylum at her father's, though she does recollect that one of them, a man of stalwart physique, still bore the marks of a terrible whipping that he had received, the welts raised by the lash showing plainly on his back. The late Asahel Beebe informed, me that he could remember having heard Major Dimick, Mason Spencer and John B. Broughton talk over some of Major Dimick's experiences as "station agent" and "conductor" of the underground, and he himself had a vague recollection of having seen an escaped slave at the latter's home.

As having a further bearing upon the probability of escaped slaves having found refuge in this locality, it is to be remembered that John Brown, the martyr abolitionist, was himself at North Elba for a part of the time in 1849 and 1850, and again about 1854. With his fanatical interest in the blacks, and his abhorrence of the institution of slavery, as well as from references in his own letters to the cause, it is certain that he railroaded fugitives this way. Mr. Brown was at Dickinson Center on one occasion in the fifties, and there discussed the slave question and his plans with Warren Ives. While nothing is known to me relative to this visit other than the bare fact, it would not be surprising if some of the runaways were routed through Dickinson.

It is greatly to be regretted that the definite information which might so easily have been gathered fifty years ago concerning this movement in this section was not assembled and made a matter of record. Now there is no one living who knew the facts to recite them except in a fragmentary way, and a part of the interesting story must be merely conjecture.