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  • Writer's pictureKristin Wenger

The Underground Railroad of Lancaster County

As a teacher and parent, I've been a chaperone on many field trips. Last week, I had the opportunity to be a student instead. I thoroughly enjoyed deepening my understanding of this region's critical role in the Underground Railroad. The field trip was one of several offered each year by the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. This particular tour was part of the 2018 Lancaster Family History Conference and my personal continuing education plan. Our group focused on two main areas:

1. The Susquehanna River crossing between Wrightsville (York County) and Columbia (Lancaster County)

This map highlights a few key pieces of the network that developed at the river crossing

Our tour guide, Randolph Harris, explained why the river crossing was the "epicenter of the Underground Railroad in this area with some of the earliest episodes in the late 1830s."

An article in the Lancaster Newspaper just this past Sunday provides an excellent summary:

"With its strategic location and sympathetic residents, Columbia became a major stopping point for the Underground Railroad, the network of secret routes and safe houses escaping slaves used from the early to mid-19th century.
William Whipper and Steven Smith, two freed black men who became successful lumber merchants in Columbia, were especially helpful to slaves who made it across the Susquehanna River after traveling north from Virginia and Maryland. To help them along their way, Whipper and Smith built false walls into boxcars in which slaves could hide and travel to Philadelphia."

"Historic Points in Columbia's Past: Underground Railroad," LNP Sunday (Lancaster, Pennsylvania), 22 April 2018, page A14.

Harris expounded on the two factors which led to Columbia's major role in the Underground Railroad:

  • Quaker residents were abolitionists who were sympathetic to humanitarian causes.

  • The location about 20 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line provided relative ease of travel. The Quaker Wright family ran ferries across the Susquehanna River and there was a covered bridge across the river as early as 1811. Once across the river, an established turnpike (and later railroad) ran from Lancaster to Philadelphia.

Another newspaper article explains:

“This setup started in 1834,” Harris says. “That’s when they started having one train leave Columbia a day. There were so many people escaping enslavement in Maryland and Virginia, they would come into Adams County and York County.
“And everybody wanted to go to Philadelphia because that’s where the capital was,” Harris notes. “There was a big free black population, they could find support and food and shelter. They found that, too, here in Lancaster County, in Columbia.”

Mary Ellen Wright, "Lancaster County's Underground Railroad Heritage Celebrated with Programs, New Marker," LancasterOnline, published 19 February 2018 ( : accessed 24 April 2018).

Although most individuals escaping slavery headed for a large city like Philadelphia, some stayed here, especially prior to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Some African American men were paid for their labor for the first time in their lives at this lime kiln near the river.

Of Whipper and Smith, the same article continues:

“I talk about their history, where they came from, the fact that they were fabulously wealthy men and that they took great risk” to hide escaped slaves in their boxcars, Ashby says.
Hopkins says Whipper and Smith faced stiff penalties, under the Fugitive Slave Act, had they been caught smuggling freedom-seekers in their boxcars.
They could have gone to jail and be fined at least $1,000 for “aiding and abetting a fugitive,” Hopkins says.

On our tour, Harris noted that that the false rear wall in the lumber boxcars could hide five or six individuals at a time, transporting them directly from Columbia to Philadelphia in less than eight hours, an extremely expeditious journey for that era.

2. Lancaster City:

Randolph Harris and his colleagues have published a map and guide which provides excellent information about the many notable African American heritage sites within the downtown area. I will highlight just a few that we were able to visit. View the map and guide for details and exact locations.

Left: Home and office of Thaddeus Stevens, Republican congressman and abolitionist.

Right: Lydia Hamilton Smith, Stevens' biracial female housekeeper and trusted confidante, purchased this home from him in 1860, a major step in the journey toward social equality. Note the signs with photos of Stevens and Smith in the windows. According to Harris, this historical site will be developed starting in 2020.

Lancaster County Courthouse was the location of Stevens' 1865 speech calling for Southern states to seize private plantations. He advocated giving 40 acres of land and a mule to each formerly enslaved family.

The Fulton Opera House was built in 1852 on the foundation of the old county jail and workhouse. The plaque at left commemorates the 1763 Conestoga Indian Massacre. This building also played a role in the abolitionist movement in 1835 when Sheriff David Miller secretly released two women who were being held in the jail by slave catchers.

Our final stop was the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery at Chestnut, Marion and Mulberry streets.

This was the only Lancaster City cemetery in the mid 1800s which allowed burials of people of any race or religion.

Thaddeus Stevens chose to be buried in the section of the cemetery closest to the Potter's Field (for those who could not afford gravestones) and U.S. Colored Troops from the Civil War.

Harris explained that Stevens intentionally planned for his epitaph to face South.

I repose in this quiet and secluded spot not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited as to race by charter rules, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life:


That epitaph says it all. Although I have lived in Lancaster County for my entire life, I had never seen it before this field trip. On Saturday, our family will be running Lancaster's Race Against Racism for the fifth year in a row with our school district's team. The course is within a few blocks of this gravestone. Before we run, I'm going to take my kids on a little detour to share it with them. I think Thaddeus Stevens and others who were involved with the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad would be pleased to see how far we've come on the journey toward true equality in this nation. But we still have a long way to go.

For more information on the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, visit Randolph Harris' website:


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