New Brighton was ‘Hub of the Underground Railroad’

At least nine sites in New Brighton — homes, flour mill and church — were safe houses to help runaway slaves escape from Southern states where slavery was legal to free states in the North, and ultimately to Canada.

By Marsha Keefer
Beaver County Times

June 9, 2019 – NEW BRIGHTON — New Brighton’s strategic location on the Beaver River and compassion of prominent abolitionists made the borough a natural harbor for fugitive slaves seeking asylum prior to the Civil War.

“It was the hub of the Underground Railroad,” said Odette Lambert, a member and former president of New Brighton Historical Society, who’s spent close to a quarter century researching the town’s clandestine freedom trail.

The organized system depended upon a network of people and safe houses to help runaway slaves escape from Southern states where slavery was legal to free states in the North, and ultimately to Canada.

It’s estimated as many as 100,000 slaves may have fled the South between and 1810 and 1850, according to u-s-history.com.

At least nine sites in New Brighton — homes, flour mill and church — were part of the effort.

What’s fascinating, Odette said, is that “very few safe houses are still in existence in the country” — many of them in disrepair and ultimately demolished — “and our little town of New Brighton is one of the few that still has that many homes in existence.”

She chaired a committee that raised approximately $10,000 to purchase markers to designate these historic sites. Markers will be dedicated at a public ceremony at 11 a.m. June 15 at New Brighton First Presbyterian Church at 1199 Third Ave.

Underground Railroad stops in New Brighton

Nine structures were part of the Underground Railroad in New Brighton, places of safe harbor for runaway slaves from the South seeking asylum in Canada.

Here are the known stops. Descriptions are provided by New Brighton Historical Society.

• Robert Townsend House, 1612 Third Ave.

The present J&J Spratt Funeral Home provided easy access to and from the Beaver River via a secret room in the basement. In 1828, Robert Townsend established Townsend Co., a wire and rivet mill, in nearby Fallston.

• Dr. David Stanton House, 1300 Third Ave. (now owned by Frank Sentak)

Stanton, son-in-law of Robert Townsend, served as surgeon general with First Pennsylvania Calvary during the Civil War. After the war, he tended to the medical needs of runaway slaves at his home. Along with his father-in-law, Stanton found work and housing for freed slaves that returned to New Brighton because of kindness and respect shown to them while they were harbored here.

• Sara Jane (Clark) Lippincott House (aka Grace Greenwood), 1219 Third Ave.

Lippincott, an accomplished writer, women’s rights advocate and first female reporter for the New York Times, lived in New Brighton as a young girl until her marriage to Leander Lippincott. She wrote and lectured about the evils of slavery in the 1850s, and corresponded with abolitionist Milo Townsend. And organized and invited speakers to discuss the topic at First Presbyterian Church.

• First Presbyterian Church, 1199 Third Ave.

The stone church hosted many anti-slavery speakers, including former slave Frederick Douglass, publisher of the abolitionist newspaper The North Star.

• David Townsend Flour Mill, Big Rock Park, First Avenue (entrance is at Eighth Street tunnel)

Townsend, known as the “Father of New Brighton” because he laid out the borough’s street plan, was a “conductor” in the Underground Railroad. He owned a flour mill on an island in the Beaver River where he harbored fugitives until a safe house was available. He hid them in a secret false bottom of his delivery wagon under bags of flour en route to their destinations.

• James Edgar House, 1034 Fifth Ave. (now owned by Laraine McGown)

From 1850-70, the Inn of James Edgar was across from the Erie-Pittsburgh Railroad passenger station, now Merrick Art Gallery. A large tunnel in the basement led to the train station. It’s thought that Edgar would transfer fugitives arriving by train through the tunnel to his basement and then to his livery stable and on to a safe house.

• Evan Townsend House, 809 13th St.

Located on a hill above Rosalind Candy Castle, this safe house had a trap door to the cellar where runaways would hide.

• William Penn Townsend House, 1205 Penn Ave. (now owned by Dr. Brian Lambert)

Following his father, Robert, William was an ardent abolitionist. The third floor of his 1850 home gave refuge to as many as 10 runaway slaves at one time. Fugitives were brought to the rear of the house via Blockhouse Run, hidden by trees.

• Benjamin Townsend House, Penn Avenue and Allegheny Street (no longer standing)

Townsend owned a stone house where New Brighton Middle School is today. Blockhouse Run ran through the rear of the property along its way to the Beaver River, providing a safe pathway to a concealed cave he constructed in the hillside behind the home. Here, he, his wife and her “little band of silent Quaker women” would feed and clothe fugitive slaves.

A marker also will be placed at the church as it was the borough’s first Protestant church to protest slavery and hosted many anti-slavery speakers, including Frederick Douglass, a former slave and publisher of The North Star, an abolitionist newspaper.

Approximately 15 years ago, Beaver County Historical Research & Landmarks Foundation initiated a marker project, placing the first at the former Robert Townsend home at 1612 Third Ave., now J&J Spratt Funeral Home. Another was at 1219 Third Avenue, former home of Sarah Jane (Clarke) Lippincott. A reporter and women’s rights advocate, she lived in New Brighton until her marriage to Leander Lippincott, but kept in touch with local abolitionist Milo Townsend.

Lack of funds, however, stalled momentum on the foundation’s marker project, Odette said.

As part of a plan to promote tourism, the county’s recreation and tourism department developed and printed a brochure highlighting New Brighton’s historic Underground Railroad homes as part of a self-guided walking tour. A map was a visitor’s only guide.

That’s when the historical society launched a fundraiser to purchase the remaining signs.

“We decided we needed to have something permanent,” Odette said.

“At the beginning, our goal was five (markers),” she said, “but the drive was so successful the society was able to purchase seven.”

‘Historian freak’

The markers are a capstone to Odette’s years of research and tutelage on the Underground Railroad.

“Now, I can quit,” joked the 91-year-old.

Her passion for the subject yielded lectures in local schools and a 36-minute DVD, augmented with photographs by the late Ken Locke, that was distributed to every school district in the county.

Starting in 1998, she and Locke visited “almost every school in the county,” Odette said. “I don’t think we missed one. It was our outreach.”

Her son, Brian Lambert, an optometrist in town, said if not for his mother’s extensive research on New Brighton’s involvement in the Underground Railroad, “it would be history that was lost.”

“I’m a historian freak,” Odette said. “I love history — medieval and all that. I’m even reading medieval Ireland. I just love history. If it’s local, that’s more personal and if it’s for children, I really dig into it because I feel this is very important for them to know.”

Her background is an educator. She taught reading, health, science and music to fifth- through eighth-graders at the former North Star School in Ellwood City.

In the mid-’90s, a middle school teacher who wanted to introduce the Underground Railroad in her classroom approached Odette to find out what she knew.

Odette heard of New Brighton’s connection, but never delved much into the history.

“As a former teacher, when she asked me about it, I felt it was something I need to look into,” Odette said.

The Lamberts would soon find they had a tangible connection to the Underground Railroad.

Brian owns a former safe house on Penn Avenue — the former home of abolitionist William Penn Townsend.

Brian’s parents first bought the home, built around 1850, in the early 1960s. “It was red tagged. That building was ready to be torn down,” Brian said. But the borough offered it for sale through sealed bids and his father’s offer — Brian believes it was $6,000 — was accepted.

“My father really saved it,” said Brian, and with a lot of repair and renovations, turned the place into rental apartments.

In 1989, Brian bought the home from his parents for use as his private residence and optometry practice.

Brian said he “sort of doubted” his house was part of the Underground Railroad “until I found that hidden room.”

He lived there about a dozen years before discovering the secret by accident while installing an attic skylight.

While measuring, he bumped into a couple of boards. The boards were loose enough to allow one to step behind, stand on a ladder and climb above a ceiling.

“You could hide there and no one would ever find you,” Brian said. “It was pretty ingenious.”

Most safe houses had similar hiding spots, but “none of them are in the same spot,” he said.

A secret room in Robert Townsend’s home was in the basement. A false area behind a kitchen, accessed by a sliding wall that led to the basement, provided sanctuary in the former Evan Townsend house on 13th Street.

About five years ago, Brian received more proof that his home provided refuge to runaways.

He granted permission to a man asking to search his property with a metal detector.

A few hours later, the man showed Brian something he’d never seen — a “slave coin.”

Brian said such coins were like brands that identified slave ownership.

“Once a slave knew he found freedom, he would throw away that coin,” said Brian. “That’s the last thing he wanted to do — have that coin on him.”

Courage and compassion

Odette marvels at the courage and bravery of fugitive slaves.

Since slaves intentionally were kept illiterate, Odette said they communicated through code — hymns and folk songs with lyrics that had dual meanings — when they were planning escapes. For example, “Steal Away,” “Wade in the Water,” and “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd,” alluding to the Big Dipper star formation whose North Star would point them in the right direction. It’s the only fixed star, Brian said. It’s not the brightest star, but very easy to spot.

Slaves weren’t permitted to congregate except in church so these songs were sung during worship or while working the fields.

For many, the Ohio River was a main conduit out of bondage.

Travel usually was at night, Brian said, along the riverbank. Slaves were assisted by “conductors” who helped them get from one safe house to the next.

Fugitives entering Beaver County found their first safe house in Hookstown, Odette said — the home of James Nelson, an ardent Presbyterian abolitionist.

From there, slaves would continue their journey to Vanport Township and then to Bridgewater where they would find safety at the Dunlap and Davidson homes, both with easy access to the Beaver River.

New Brighton was a welcoming haven for fugitive slaves, primarily because of the Townsend family. The homes of Robert, Evan, William Penn, Milo, and Benjamin Townsend, along with that of Robert’s son-in-law, Dr. David Stanton, and a flour mill operated by David Townsend, all were known stops on the Underground Railroad.

The Townsends, members of the Religious Society of Friends, a Christian movement founded in the 1650s and also known as Quakers, espoused peaceful principles and believed all men are created equal, Odette said, and eschewed slavery.

“They did not believe in man owning another person,” she said.

Prominent businessmen and citizens, Odette said the Townsends “had a vision” in the development of the borough. David Townsend plotted the street plan. The Townsends also had a hand in the development of the Beaver Division Canal along the Beaver River, which opened in 1834 and allowed goods — including slaves — to be ferried to New Castle and ultimately to Erie and beyond.

“They were a very active part of the community. A very well-respected family,” she said.

Odette said those who helped runaways risked fines, imprisonment and losing their homes.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made it a federal offense to aid or harbor runaways.

“It had to be a calling for them to be able to sacrifice their lives this way,” Odette said, which is why everything was kept secretive.

“It was actually very stressful on the families that kept these fugitives,” she said, and especially paramount to keep children quiet.

“You know how children like to talk. You can’t say anything,” she said.

“We have to give credit that there were people that were compassionate enough to know that these people needed help,” Odette said.

Once fugitive slaves reached a safe house, families would feed and clothe them before they departed for the next station.

Transportation often was in wagons or horse buggies with false bottoms.

David Townsend for one, Odette said, would load his delivery wagon with bags of flour. Fugitives were hidden in a secret false bottom, and spirited to their next destination.

Slaves on foot would recognize a safe house by various signs.

“Sometimes it was a weather vane on a barn that was permanent — that didn’t move — but was pointing north. You could stay in that barn overnight. Others were lights in the window,” said Odette.

Bounty hunters, who recaptured escaped slaves for return to their owners, flourished during this period.

“This turned out to be a very lucrative business,” Odette said.

She told of a free man who lived in Bridgewater with his wife and two children.

“He and his wife did laundry for hotels that were there,” Odette said.

The man was called to one of the hotels under pretense, she said, where a bounty hunter captured him.

But Bridgewater citizens who knew “what a good man he was,” Odette said, pooled their money and bought his freedom.

“You always hear about the evil people. This shows you there also were good people,” she said.

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