The Underground Railroad


From Historical Sketches of Potter County


"So your children can tell their children"

Submitted by Frankie Stonemetz

     The Underground Railroad is mostly a tradition or a memory, a connected history of which cannot be written for the lack of records, as none were kept. It went into disuse when the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln made the slave a free man. It was never a "Trunk Line" but consisted of numerous trails from the Gulf of Mexico through various sections of the country with Canada as its grand terminus. Very few of the colored race from the far South ever succeeded in getting through the numerous slave states, but from the Border States south of the Mason-Dixon Line there was a more or less continuous stream dribbling through on the Underground. routes.

     The radicals of the North and the so-called "Fire Eaters" of the South, with their agitations and recriminations probably did much to bring on the Civil War, brought it on sooner than it would have otherwise—and perhaps in time it might have been avoided by the gradual emancipation or purchase of the slaves by the Government.

     The intelligent slave owner of the South never forgot the story of the slave uprising in San Domingo and the most frightful results that followed when thousands of crazed negroes made the island a place of horror such as the world had never known. Always there was the fear down deep in their hearts with a vision of what had happened — and what might just a~ easily happen here.

     When Old John Brown of Ossawatomie and a handful of followers not so brainy, but equally ill balanced, raided Harper’s Ferry with the vowed intention of creating a general uprising of the negroes (the result of which could only be conjectured) it created a fear in every slave-holding section.

     When Northern Radicals made martyrs of the poor deluded men who made this attempted uprising, public sentiment on both sides of the line went wild. "John Brown’s body in the ground and his soul marching on," had its effect.

     The Democratic party in the South was for slaveholding and the extension of slavery. In the North it was different. Quite a large portion did not advocate slavery and its extension and would have been glad to have seen it legally wiped out.

     The Underground was a much used line through Hagerstown, Maryland, and up the Susquehanna River, branching off at various points thus scattering the runaways—for if they all had followed the same trail it would have been a simple matter to have blocked it. From Coudersport, which was an important point on the Underground Railroad, the line ran by way of Niles Hill, Nelson Clark’s and Steer Brook Road to Millport, Ceres and Angelica, N. Y., then to the Canadian border at different points.

     The John S. Mann house in Coudersport and the King farm at Ceres were principal stations with Nelson Clark, Ephriam Bishop and Joseph Mann as intermediates, with probably others. It has always been hard to get particulars as to persons engaged in the work. For one thing even those engaged in the work only knew of those who were active a few miles either side and never cared to talk about it even after the Civil War was over.

     They had been engaged in an unlawful business—violating the laws of their state and of the United States. Aside from this they were of the best law-abiding citizens. Their views of liberty and the rights of man compelled them to do one thing which the law condemned, but their hearts approved and they were very sensitive about the matter.

     One evening "before the war," a weary, woe-begone frightened colored man entered the law office of John S. Mann in Coudersport. There was no mistaking the condition of the African. He had gone the limit, and as he dropped into a chair without waiting for an invitation, the hopeless look on his face, boots out at the sides, soles and uppers held together by strings around the feet, his clothes very scanty, scarcely sufficient to hide his nakedness, fixed his status as a runaway chattel from below the Mason-Dixon Line.

     His story was soon told. For over a week he had been dodging the U. S. Marshal and his master. Sometimes he was ahead and sometimes the pursuers overran him. But always,sleeping in the brush, getting victuals here and there at the "way stations" where often they had no safe place to conceal him and they dared not take him in their homes for their reputation was such that their homes would most likely be searched and capture result.

     The fact that he was so closely followed made it most difficult for Mr. Mann. Many runaway slaves had already received succor at his hands and many more would be cared for, but this man’s physical condition was such that he must be where he could receive attention if necessary. What to do and how to do for the unfortunate was a burning question.

     The Mann homestead had a reputation well earned as a place for escaped slaves and, if the Marshal was hot on his trail, his home would undoubtedly be searched. It was also evident the Negro cou1d go no farther even if provided with food and some clothes.

     At this time, Mr. Mann had in his employ an Irishman named Pat, had in fact employed Pat for a long time at $1.00 per day and found (which was pretty good pay for steady work in those days). Pat was Irish to the core and a Democrat who lived down near the river bank a little way back from Main Street with Maggie and a kid or two in a board shanty of three rooms and a hole under the kitchen floor for a cellar.

     After thinking the matter over briefly, Mr. Mann summoned Pat and put the proposition up to him that he take the slave in charge. As he (Pat) was a stiff Democrat no one would look for a Negro near his premises. But Pat balked stubbornly and it required all of Mr. Mann’s lawyer technique before he finally convinced Pat of the good of the act.

     When the officer and the owner of the Negro reached Coudersport they called at Mr. Mann’s office and stated their errand plainly. They were welcomed, but not too heartily, and given permission to search the premises. The search was only perfunctory as the officer said, "Our Nigger may have been here but he’s not here now!" The next night the Negro was on his way to Canada.

     Another evening "before the war," a gentleman rode up to the Coudersport Hotel, engaged a room, and proceeded to stroll around town, finally meeting up with James Smith, a staunch Democrat. The stranger was a Deputy U. S. Marshal and requested Mr. Smith’s advice and assistance in running. down a negro he had traced into town. Smith told him he would gladly help the "law," but advised the Marshal to forget it saying that if there were a Negro in town word went out the minute a stranger was seen and the slave was now long gone.

     There was never any way of getting a fair estimate of the number of slaves passing through Coudersport. They usually came singly, but sometimes in pairs. W. C. Rennells says he saw four coming up West Street to the Mann homestead and I saw five at one time going into the front gate of the Mann’s. A. B. Mann said it was not unusual to find a colored person at the breakfast table. When and how they came was guess work, and they disappeared as they came.

     The Manns had a building at the southwest corner of Third and West Streets where Mrs. Mann kept a book store on the ground floor and the second floor was the home of the only printing plant in the county. A small portion of the tack room of the printing plant had been partitioned off, Jathed and plastered so as not to be discernible.

     Years later, M. W. McAlarney, publisher, discovered the "secret" room complete with a straw tick and a blanket ,or two. Entrance was made by a loose board from the upper part of the single story attached shed. Once inside, the single board door was securely fastened by dropping a bar into some catches made for the purpose. This board was apparently as we’ll nailed as any other board, but the nails used had been broken off with only the heads showing.

     Joseph Mann, a brother of John S. Mann, conducted a large store at Miliport, about a dozen miles from Coudersport, in connection with R L. Nichols. This was quite an important station as the store made a good hiding place but as a rule the negroes were not allowed to stay any longer than absolutely necessary.

     Mrs. Mann was not a Quaker like her husband, but when it came to helping runaway slaves she could out-quake the Quakers. Once a colored woman was brought in by an Abolitionist. The woman had started with several other members of her family but somewhere above Williamsport pursuit was so close they had been compelled to separate, taking different trails. After resting up for a week she was finally dressed in some of Mrs. Mann’s clothes and a neighbor lady, using the Mann’s horse and buggy, drove her’ to Buffalo, 100 miles away, stopping with friends of the cause until she was landed in Canada.

     The next station beyond Millport was the Francis King farm at Ceres, a great rendezvous for the runaway as long as slavery existed. From Ceres one line extended to Angelica, Canandaigua, Geneseo and to Lake Erie. We do not think an escaped negro was ever returned to slavery from this section and very few times did the officers ever trace them this far. The Abolitionists always helped them and the Democrats just plain ignored them.

     The runaway slaves were about the brightest and often the most reckless of their race. Not one in a hundred could read or write, but they could read a map made in the 8and by Abolitionists and never made a mistake in reading a sign at a crossraod--it might be a stone, a stump or a peculiar tree, giving them the proper direction. They never made a mistake in selecting the proper place to stop. They remembered every direction and description given them. 

     The name, Underground Railroad, according to one story, originated beforee 1880 at Columbia, Pa., where negro chasers invariably lost the trail and one of them said his negro must have escaped by an underground road. It has also been said that Ohio had the most "underground lines."


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Last Update August 22, 2000