Antebellum New York was in the vanguard of the transportation revolution that had swept through early 19th century America. It led the way in the building of turnpikes, hosted the world’s first steamboat, built the nation’s premier canal to connect the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, and was a pioneer in railroad construction. One of the consequences of the revolution in transportation that washed over Antebellum New York was a robust network that could and did support the Underground Railway.
On the journey north to Canada and unequivocal freedom, most of the African-Americans escaping servitude in the United States had to cross through one of a handful of border states. Of course there were many destinations within the United States, but Canada held the promise that they would not be returned to their former masters. Certainly the Fugitive Slave Laws of 1793 and 1850 as well as the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision of 1856 made life risky for a runaway slave in the United States. Basically, the states from Vermont west to Illinois were where the vast majority of former slaves escaped to freedom in Canada.
New York State became a significant intermediate destination for fugitive slaves and Orange County an important regional hub in the Hudson valley. Every means of transportation was used to further the journey to Canada. Steamboats would move fugitives from New York City to Albany and the Erie Canal would carry them the rest of the way to Lake Erie. The Erie Railroad would carry runaways who had crossed over the state line from New Jersey or Pennsylvania into Orange County as well as fugitives from New York City. New York had an excellent network of turnpikes and plank roads and many of the former slaves used this network to get to the Canadian border.
The Erie Railroad was one of the most significant escape routes in the whole freedom network. Initially, the railroad made its money in carrying Orange County milk to New York City in the 1840’s. With the completion of its line to Dunkirk on Lake Erie in 1851 and its branch to Buffalo a year later in 1852, the Erie became the first long haul railroad in the country and was set to play a major role in the Underground Railroad. The Fugitive Slave Law had just been signed in 1850 and panic had set in with the African-American population in the North.
The D&H Canal may also have been used as an escape route, though most likely not as a major route as was the Erie Railroad in the decade before the Civil War. Port Jervis was a stop on the Underground Railroad and could have accommodated freedom seekers on the D&H Canal and, after 1850, on the Erie Railroad too. There was also a well established network over turnpikes and other roads from Port Jervis through Goshen and Chester to Newburgh. Before the coming of the Erie Railroad the overland route to Newburgh and the Hudson Valley network was the main passage to freedom for fugitive slaves who arrived at Port Jervis from the Philadelphia underground railroad.
Travel by canal boat was slow; canal boats rarely move faster than three miles per hour. The canal terminus at Kingston would have left the fugitives with many more miles to still travel. As a consequence, the D&H Canal never became a major escape route for freedom seekers. The Erie Railroad had trains that could reach speeds of 50 miles per hour
or more and its passengers would disembark on the shore of Lake Erie, within a few hours via steamboat to their Canadian destination. With luck, the fugitive might even be able to ride in a railway coach.
Whilst the D&H Canal was probably not a significant avenue of escape for fugitive slaves, it probably did have a role in sheltering some of these individuals. We know that not all freedom seekers continued on to Canada. Some sought and found refuge in local communities. African-Americans worked on the canal both on canal boats and at major ports like present-day Kingston. We see them shoveling coal at the docks in Kingston and also know that they worked at some of the businesses the canal fostered along its length. It’s conceivable and highly likely that some fugitives chose to remain in the area served by the D&H Canal. This is a fruitful area for further research.
Two components essential for a successful underground network are a robust transportation infrastructure and a sympathetic populous. It’s clear that New York had the breadth and variety of transportation facilities to support the fugitives’ flight. Important support for the Underground Railroad came from Quakers, free African-Americans and other sympathetic local people.
In 1850 there were almost a quarter of a million people in the mid-Hudson valley. Of these about nine thousand were African-American and one of every four lived in Orange County. There were also about fifty Quaker meeting houses though only one in ten was in Orange County. It’s clear that much of the support for the Underground Railroad in Orange County would have to come from the free African-American community. This was, in fact, the case. Their ranks included prominent African-Americans such as the Alsdorf family of Newburgh, well-known dancing masters. These Underground Railroad “conductors” risked fines of $5,000 each and jail for up to five years for helping fugitives. Many, as former slaves, were also liable to be returned to their past masters under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
The sympathy local people gave to the runaways’ cause was mixed but was generally sufficient enough to provide them with the aid and comfort they needed. Until the late 18th century New York had the largest population of slaves in the north. The Hudson Valley had a concentration of these unfortunate souls. Support for slavery persisted into the 19th century. For example, when an agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society visited Newburgh in 1839 he was mobbed and chased from the city. New York would periodically exhibit some of the most violent racism witnessed in the United States. There were significant antiabolitionist riots in New York City in 1833 and 1834. The New York City Draft Riots of 1863 saw scores of African-Americans killed and hundreds injured by white mobs. 1892 witnessed the lynching in Port Jervis of Robert Lewis, an African-American man accused of rape. All of these illustrate the virulent racial intolerance that existed just below the surface of 19th century New York.
There were enlightened people, nevertheless, who acy and Alexander Hamilton were members of the Society. In the 19th century, the Erie Railroad had many stationmasters and conductors sympathetic to the fugitives’ cause. In fact, the Erie route was so popular that “federal spies” would frequently watch the railroad in the hopes of catching a group of Underground Railroad “passengers”.
Frequently, the journey on the Erie was not easy. Many of the fugitives had walked barefoot and had sore and bloody feet. Many of them rode in unheated cargo boxcars wearing only thin, threadbare clothes. This made the journey especially arduous in the colder months, particularly in winter. Some lucky fugitives got to ride in heated passenger cars. A. S. Murray of Goshen, an Erie Railroad director, was a strong abolitionist. He would see to it that a pass or ticket was issued to the runaways who came his way. If a ticket or pass wasn’t available, fugitives could be put on a train in Chester, an important Underground Railroad switching station, when Conductor Willet was on board since he, too, was strongly anti-slavery. As a matter of fact, Willet was widely famous for his passionate stand. No fugitive was ever asked for a ticket on any train when Willet was conductor.
To learn more about the Underground Railroad in Orange County, Roger A. King’s The Underground Railroad in Orange County, New York: The Silent Rebellion is highly recommended. Also recommended in order to understand the Underground Railroad in New York is Underground Railroad in New Jersey and New York by William J. Switala.
Copyright 2010 by Stephen Skye