Underground Railroad Escape Routes
Underground Railroad escape routes cut through the ten northeastern counties of Pennsylvania. Blockson and Switala have identified three major escape routes through the region. The following summary traces these paths.
The First Leg of the Journey
The point of departure for the trip to New York through Northeastern Pennsylvania is at Norristown with a line extending to Quakertown. Historians who have studied in-depth the paths through this area agree that Quakertown was the major depot on the Underground Railroad for runaways traveling to upstate New York to land in or near Syracuse and going on to Canada in that direction. One of the earliest maps, drawn by Siebert, shows a line, representing the 25 miles between Norristown and Quakertown. Because it is unlikely that such a trip could have been made in a single night (the time fugitives traveled to avoid detection) there has been some question about the feasibility of such an escape line. More recent research now identifies a number of resting sites between the two towns, suggesting that the route could have been divided, allowing fugitives to be refreshed and fed along the way.
Using information from a number of sources, Switala describes the runaway’s movement between the two towns thusly:
To reach Quakertown from Norristown, the runaways and their conductors went along the Dekaln Pike (U. S. Route 202) northeast, until they reached the Old Bethlehem Pike (PA Route 309) just outside of Lansdale. Smedley reports that Dr. Paxton of Norristown was chief among the conductors and that he transferred hundreds of runaways to Quakertown. The Old Bethlehem Pike was built in 1763 and connected Philadelphia with Bethlehem. It followed the trace of an old Indian trail known as the Minsi Path. Near Lansdale, Seth Lukens had a station in his home on Forty Foot Road. Leaving Lukens’ station, runaways went another eight miles to the basement of Gerhart’s Tavern, located at 898 Allentown Road. The tavern is still there today, but is now called the Rising Sun Inn. It was here that fugitives who had bypassed Norristown rejoined the main route to Quakertown. The next stop after Telford was Perkasie, six miles away. A trip of only seven more miles brought the escapees to Quakertown.
Blockson identifies Richard Moore as the leading agent in the Quakertown, a town so named because a large number of Quakers lived there. According to Blockson, Moore lived at Main Street and Edgemont Road and made his home a regular stop for escapees. He also agrees with other historians that, after fugitives left Quakertown, some of them continued on Old Bethlehem Pike to Applebachsville, about six miles to the northeast, while others went northwest through Milford Township, where they found shelter at the Brick Tavern Inn. Both routes then led to Bingen, five miles south of Bethlehem. In Bingen William Yeager provided food and shelter for runaways and guided them the final few miles to Bethlehem.
Bethlehem, the center of Moravian culture in Pennsylvania, was filled with people who opposed slavery. Blockson has noted in his work that citizens in this town would sometimes go so far in trying to liberate a slave as to purchase the runaway from his so-called master and then provide the former slave with a job to support himself as a free man.
The fugitive continuing his/her journey from Bethlehem had three options: Easton, Stroudsburg, or Palmerton. Those who chose either of the last two options ended up traveling through, or staying permanently, in one or more of the ten counties within the parameters of this study.
The first route originated in the towns of Quakertown and Bethlehem, then along the Lehigh River to Palmertown. Fugitives would continue to follow the shores of the Lehigh River northward until they came to the well-established Lehigh Indian Path, which would take them directly into Wilkes-Barre. From Wilkes-Barre, conductors such as William Gildersleeve, Charles Bailey, Leonard Batchelor, and John Fell guided runaways northward to Waverly, Montrose, Towanda, and Friendsville, and eventually into upstate New York.
A second major route originated at Stroudsburg and followed the Pechoqucalin Indian Path east through the Pocono Mountains and into Wilkes-Barre. Fugitives then followed the route listed above.
The third major escape route also originated in Stroudsburg and weaved its way in a northwesterly direction to Dunmore, Waverly, and then along the shores of the Susquehanna River to Sugar Run, Towanda, and into upstate New York.
What makes these escape routes so fascinating is their proximity to the railroads and canals of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company and the Delaware and Hudson Railroad. These can be found in Carbon, Luzerne, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties. Although documentary evidence has yet to be found linking these canals and railroads to the escape routes, future research will concentrate on this possibility.
Another interesting question arises when the several Indian paths that served as escape routes are considered. Did Native Americans give sanctuary to runaways? Although Sullivan’s Campaign in 1779-1780 chased the Iroquois and Susquehannocks from their northern Pennsylvania lands, did some of the earliest fugitives benefit from their help or assistance from their mixed blood descendants? Again, future research and oral history interviews will focus on these questions.