Monday, August 18, 2014

Columbia - Home of the Underground Railroad - A Historic Society Tour

On Saturday, August 9, the Columbia Historic Preservation Society sponsored a tour of the route of the former Underground Railroad, the path to freedom for 19th-century slaves.  The tour started and ended in Columbia, with stops at the Lancaster County Convention Center, Lancaster's Shreiner-Concord Cemetery, the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, and the Underground Railroad Visitors Center in Christiana. 

The term "Underground Railroad" is said to have originated in Columbia, and there is strong historical evidence to support this claim.  In the mid-19th century, Columbia was a thriving transportation hub, with a bridge, a ferry, and a canal system, as well as a secret network of safe houses, making it a recognizable and desirable stopover on an escaped slave's route to freedom.

In his book The History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties (1883), R.C. Smedley states the following:
"In the early part of concerted management slaves were hunted and tracked as far as Columbia [Pennsylvania].  There the pursuers lost all traces of them.  The most scrutinizing inquiries, the most vigorous search, failed to educe any knowledge of them.  Their pursuers seemed to have reached an abyss, beyond which they could not see, the depths of which they could not fathom, and in their bewilderment and discomforture they declared there must be an underground railroad somewhere.  This gave origin to the term by which this secret passage from bondage to freedom was designated thereafter." 

William Wright, a Columbia citizen, is credited with laying the groundwork for this systematic transport of escaped slaves. In addition, William Whipper, an African-American businessman, owned railroad cars outfitted with secret compartments for hauling slaves, giving the term "Underground Railroad" a physical dimension, in addition to its metaphorical meaning.

 Columbia's Robert Brinson portrayed Columbia businessman William Whipper.

When the tour group arrived at Columbia's Zion Hill Cemetery, "William Whipper" contemplated the sacrifice of black Civil War soldiers buried there, most of whom fought with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. During the construction of the Route 30 bypass in the late 1960s, many of the grave markers were dug up and tossed aside.  In 1997, funds were raised, and dedicated community volunteers gathered and reset some of the stones, and added markers to probable grave locations.
The cemetery also holds the grave of Columbian Robert Loney, a soldier with Company I of the 32nd United States Colored Troops (USCT) Regiment.

At the Lancaster County Convention Center, Darlene Colon, president of the Christiana Historical Society, portrayed Lydia Hamilton Smith, housekeeper and confidante to U.S. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens.  The site encompasses Stevens's former office and residence, which became a station on the Underground Railroad. Smith lived in a separate house in the rear but later moved into the main residence with her children. 

Standing before the spirit of Thaddeus Stevens (actually a large hanging), historian and tour guide Randolph Harris explained details of the site.

Lancaster's Shreiner-Concord Cemetery holds Stevens's grave and memorial.

A. Lee Brinson portrayed Civil War soldier Sergeant Jonathan Sweeney, who "materialized" at the cemetery to visit his and his wife's graves, and to give his regards to Stevens.

The tomb of Thaddeus Stevens

 Historian Randolph Harris explained aspects of Stevens's life.

"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, equality of man before the Creator."
-Epitaph on Thaddeus Stevens’ tomb, written by himself
The epitaph faces south as a symbolic message to Southern slaveholders.

Statue of Stevens at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.

Plaques surrounding the base of the statue elucidate Stevens's accomplishments and convictions:

If he were alive today, Stevens would probably be branded a "liberal" - or more likely a "socialist" - by right-wing bloviators, for promoting such virtuous principles.

The final stop on the tour was Christiana, site of the Christiana Riot, also known as the Christina Resistance.
On Sept. 11, 1851, Maryland slave owner Edward Gorsuch entered Christiana with a posse to demand the return of his slaves.
William Parker, a former slave who had been giving them refuge, told Gorsuch he was in the North and there were no slaves. In the ensuing fighting, Gorsuch was killed. Later, U.S. Marines arrived to restore order. Subsequently, 38 men were arrested and charged with treason under the federal Fugitive Slave Law.
Thaddeus Stevens defended them, and after the first defendant was acquitted, charges against the others were not pursued.


  1. Thank you Cole and your beautiful wife for attending the Columbia Historic Preservation Society's Underground Railroad Bus Tour. We are working diligently too solidify the term was started and the core of abolitionists society was stationed in Columbia,PA.
    With the names of Wright, Whipper, Smith, Givens, Gibbons, Goodrich, Mifflin and Thad Stevens running this operation under the corporation of the Columbia Bank & Bridge Co.
    Feel good to live in a town that has so much historic prominence in this country with its rich heritage. Take a moment to come to the museum and learn about this great town every Saturday and Sunday from 1 PM - 4 PM. It is free and we do need your donation to keep our doors open to the public for educational and genealogy purposes.
    With well over 2,000 volunteer hours every year, our budget is depleting and with your help we can share our history to the world.
    Thank you for your time and for Cole for producing this historic moment on this informative blog.
    Thank you,
    Chris Vera
    Director/Columbia Historic Preservation Society

    1. You're welcome, Chris, and thank you for all the work you do to bring Columbia's rich history to light - and to life.

  2. I hope there is an increased awareness of the importance that the historic society plays in preserving Columbia's history, in doing so it is helping Columbia's future.

  3. thanks Chris!! again, you go above and beyond! let's come up with some fundraising efforts for the preservation society....along the lines of the ice bucket challenge?!!!! they have raised $9.5 MILLION in 2 weeks (compared to the usual $1.5 million same time period in the past! lets put our heads together and brainstorm!

  4. "The future of Columbia lies in its past."
    Great write-up and photographs.