Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Underground Railroad was Neither Underground Nor a Railroad, Discuss.

So today's post is not a story about what I do know about Port Tobacco but rather a statement of something that I do not understand about Port Tobacco. Maybe one of our staff members or readers (any Historic Preservation people from Charles County reading this today?) can enlighten me on this point.

I am not a fan of "Underground Railroad Archaeology" because it seems like nobody really knows what constitutes evidence of the Underground Railroad. Houses with "secret doorways" and "underground tunnels" are common "Underground Railroad Sites" but these features could have served any smuggling purpose or could just be architectural anomalies.

Recently, I was called out to a home near Binghamton because someone found an archaeological site and some bones while digging under their patio. There, under the patio, was the first floor of a historic structure, complete with a doorway. They had no idea that it existed until then. But, I digress.

In my research I have found that the St. Ignatius Church, right down Chapel Point Road from Port Tobacco, has such an underground tunnel that may or may not be part of the Underground Railroad. And, even more surprising to me, the Port Tobacco Courthouse is listed on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

With all the Confederate activity that went on in Port Tobacco, I find this to be an unlikely place for escaped slaves to have been ferried through. Can anyone tell me what the story is behind the courthouse listing?



Jim said...

I occasionally field questions about the Underground Railroad. People escaping slavery hid in many places during their run for the north, and sometimes used the railroads; but the term is largely metaphorical.

In Annapolis and the surrounding hinterland, brick 'tunnels' are found (Upton Scott House in Annapolis; Belair Mansion in Bowie); invariably, only the very smallest of children could hope to squeeze through them. These 'tunnels,' in fact, are stormwater drainage systems associated with large masonry mansions. I suspect many led to cisterns where the water might have been used, but I do not know of any example of such a feature having been found.

Digging a ditch and building a brick tunnel inside of it is not the sort of thing that could be done clandestinely. If the object were to create a place of concealment and escape, a better, less elaborate and less conspicuous approach might be adopted; e.g., privies or woodsheds with false walls.


April M. Beisaw said...

Good points Dr. Gibb.
So you don't know why the courthouse is on the Underground Railroad list either?


April M. Beisaw said...

Elsie, one of our most dedicated volunteers (and the one usually stuck working with Scott in the field) sent me this link to some more info on the St. Ignatius tunnel.

Anonymous said...

I am so sorry Elsie felt "stuck" working with me. Am I that hard to work with?

Dancing Willow said...

April, after finding the door, had this first floor been filled in with dirt or was it actually still hollowed out leading to that safe haven? Either way, what a cool find!

April M. Beisaw said...

It appeared that the entire first floor was filled in and that the new building had been built on top and slightly behind the original such that the patio was inside the old building but the inside of the new house was mostly outside of the original. Does that make sense?

I did not get to see if there was a space behind the old door. It was closed and the depth and narrowness of the dirt around it made it such that it would have been dangerous to climb into the hole to find out.

Jim said...

I have been told by local folks that some Port Tobaccoans had been conductors on the Underground Railroad. I haven't seen the documents upon which that statement is based.

Given the proximity of the Potomac River and the potential save haven afforded by the Port Tobacco River, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that freedom-bound people passed through the site.

April M. Beisaw said...

that still doesn't explain why the courthouse is listed.

April M. Beisaw said...

Elsie came up with a few more tidbits, including the following:

"Quote from MD tourist brochure on underground RR. "Port tobacco Courthouse// This historic courthouse is the trial site of the free and enslaved African Americans who were arrested and brought to trial for aiding in the flight of more than 30 armed freedom seekers in 1845". Apparently this must be the same incident that is described somewhat differently in both the abstracts of the Port Tobacco Times and Lost towns of tidewater Maryland p. 223. "

I sent out an email to the National Park Service to see if they can shed some more light on the listing. Of course the holiday season will likely delay any response.


April M. Beisaw said...

Thanks to Vergil Nobel and Diane Miller of the National Park Service, I have the answer to my question and Elsie was right on track.

I'll provide more details in my next post.