Underground Railroad in Middletown
The Underground Railroad was one of the most important tools used during the time of slavery for African Americans to escape slavery and become free. However, most people overlook the true size of the railroad through the states. Middletown, though small on the map, was an exit for the Underground Railroad.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 forced many hiding slaves to be put at risk. This act required that runaway slaves who escaped from one state into another or into a federal territory were to be captured and returned to their previous owner(s). Anyone who was found to be aiding a runaway slave by providing shelter, food or any other form of assistance or knowingly knew the whereabouts of an escape slave and did not report it would be liable to six months in prison and a $500 fine. Because of the strict lockdown on escapees, most slaves were left on their own until they reached farther north to get assistance. Within the northern areas, there were many secret helpers of slaves, sometimes referred to as conductors, to either help free them or get them adjusted to the new area; these helpers were usually a wide array of people ranging from farmers, ministers, and even a select few wealthy people. They helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad and helped the newly freed slaves adapt to being free. When the fugitive slaves used the railroad to escape, the conductors offered a hiding place for rest and recovery until they got to their destination; the safe houses could be churches, school, and more commonly private homes of the helpers. The Underground Railroad was first created in the late 1700s, and it rapidly grew until the Civil War. It originally started as a series of secret routes that were monitored and hidden by abolitionists who helped African Americans escape to free Northern states or to Canada. Once the Civil War hit in 1863, the Underground Railroad moved its work “aboveground” to aid in the Union efforts. During its time in hidden operation, it was the largest anti-slavery freedom movement in the United States.
Though it would seem unlikely, due to the relatively small size of the town, Middletown was on one of the Underground Railroad’s secret routes. Within the area, there were multiple exits for the railroad including Chambersburg, Harrisburg, York, Columbia, and Middletown. The exit for Middletown was located at an African American community centered around Five Points, an area on W. Main Street named after the fact that there was a row of five gable-pointed houses. Mary Brown, who originally lived in Virginia, and was likely a former slave, was a conductor, as were members of the Fisher and the Crow families. The buildings were eventually destroyed in the early 1900s, though any leftover parts that were salvageable were used to build another house nearby. The Five Points was located on the same site as Elwood’s Service Station today.
There was another rumored exit of the Underground Railroad in town when a demolition crew accidentally found an abnormally large tunnel underneath a home in May 2014. The hidden tunnel was around 70-feet long, adding to the reasonable assumption that it served as a part of the railroad. In fact, this tunnel seemed to remain active even after the Civil War. Historians found old glass bottles all throughout the area, implying that it may have even been used during the Prohibition era (1920-1933) when the manufacture, transportation, sale, possession/storage, and consumption of alcohol was forbidden by law.
Some escaped slaves ended up living in the Middletown area. For example, 12 Black families settled in Royalton in 1864. Some were “run-aways” and some “freed men.” It was there in Royalton that they founded a church called the “First Zion Primitive Baptist Church.” The church was located at the corner of Shippen and Dock Streets. The whole church was moved and relocated to a new area in 1920. The church was then renamed the “First Zion Baptist Church,” at its new home on South Catherine Street, where it is still located today.
Story prepared by: Alexis Jefferson
Hubbard House Underground Railroad Museum, https://hubbardhouseugrrmuseum.org/
The Middletown Area Historical Society. “Black History in Middletown.” 35th Annual Middletown Fair: A Tribute to the Black Influences of Middletown , edited by The Middletown Area Historical Society, 35th ed., Triangle Press, 2010, pp. 4–5.
The Middletown Area Historical Society. “Middletown Trivia.” 28th Annual Middletown Colonial Arts & Crafts Fair At Hoffer Park, edited by The Middletown Area Historical Society, 28th ed., Triangle Press, 2003, pp. 18–18.
The Middletown Area Historical Society. “Middletown Trivia.” 29th Annual Middletown Colonial Arts & Crafts Fair At Hoffer Park, edited by The Middletown Area Historical Society, 29th ed., Triangle Press, 2004, pp. 16–16.
Wagner, Meg. “Demolition Crew Accidentally Unearths Possible Underground Railroad Tunnel in Pennsylvania.” New York Daily News, 9 Jan. 2019, https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/underground-railroad-tunnel-discovered-pa-article-1.1806985
Wingert Cooper H. Abolitionists of South Central Pennsylvania. History Press, 2018, p 82.