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Stretch of Keystone Corridor rail line recogized for role in Underground Railroad

An 1850s passerby would have noticed nothing unusual about the railroad cars. But some trains on a stretch of Pennsylvania track were carrying secret cargo.

William Whipper was born in Lancaster.
William Whipper was born in Lancaster.Read more

An 1850s passerby would have noticed nothing unusual about the railroad cars. But some trains on a stretch of Pennsylvania track were carrying secret cargo.

Concealed in hidden compartments on trains that hauled lumber from Lancaster City to Philadelphia were slaves seeking freedom.

The cars, owned by three African American businessmen, were part of another "railroad" - the famed Underground Railroad. And now, along with other national sites recognized for their role in that endeavor, the railroad corridor is getting its due.

The 70-mile stretch, part of Amtrak's Keystone Corridor, is the first rail route to be recognized as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

The program administered by the U.S. National Parks Service recognizes historic places, facilities, and educational and interpretive programs associated with the Underground Railroad.

"We look for all ways to tell the story of people who were escaping," said Sheri Jackson, Northeast regional manager of the network, "where they stayed, and who provided any kind of assistance: money, clothes, horse and wagons, whaling ships, and the railroad."

Forty-nine sites and programs in Pennsylvania and two in New Jersey have been awarded recognition since the commemorative network was begun in 1998.

A century and a half ago, the 70-mile stretch of the Keystone Corridor was part of the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad. The railroad made up the easternmost section of the Main Line of Public Works, a 400-mile corridor linking Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

A trio of African American businessmen and abolitionists - William Whipper, Stephen Smith, and William Goodridge - used rail cars owned by their companies to secretly transport freedom seekers who'd crossed the Mason-Dixon line into central Pennsylvania. They rode on to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, says historian Randolph Harris, a consultant and former director of the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County who prepared the application. For many, the final stop was Canada.

Philadelphia became a hub of the Underground Railroad because of its large free African American community and renowned abolitionist movement, says historian Charles L. Blockson, founder and curator emeritus of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University.

Pennsylvania, which had outlawed slavery in 1780, became a destination for freedom seekers as well as a thoroughfare to points north.

Blockson's 1984 article "Escape From Slavery; The Underground Railroad," published in National Geographic, was the impetus for the formation of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. After the article appeared, Blockson says, he was asked by then-U.S. Rep. Peter Kostmayer of Bucks County to head an advisory committee, which spent five years researching the history.

The result was the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act of 1998, which established the program.

To become eligible, applicants must go through a rigorous process that includes historical research and documentation, as well as get the site owner's permission. Sites and programs that win recognition can display the program's logo, are featured on the agency's website, and are eligible for federal aid to preserve or expand their mission.

The Keystone Corridor application, two years in the making, was overseen by Lenwood Sloan, director of cultural and heritage tourism at the Pennsylvania Tourism Office.

Harris, who has prepared successful applications for 18 Pennsylvania sites and programs in the network, documented the history of the transportation corridor, the role of towns and residents along the route, and the black businessmen who used their wealth and position to help the fugitives.

Stephen Smith was born into slavery in Dauphin County in 1795 but later bought his freedom. He formed a partnership with William Whipper, who was born in Lancaster. Starting from scratch, they created a business empire that eventually included lumber, real estate, railroad cars, and even a steamship.

William Goodridge, of York, began as a barber but eventually opened a five-story variety store and owned railroad cars that traveled between York and Philadelphia.

Smith, Whipper, and Goodridge used their resources to transport people fleeing from slavery, mostly in Maryland and Virginia, Harris said.

Whipper later recounted his Underground Railroad work to another former operative, William Still of Philadelphia. Still reprinted the letter in The Underground Railroad, a groundbreaking 1872 book.

"On their arrival they were generally hungry and penniless," Whipper wrote. "I received hundreds in this condition; fed and sheltered from one to 17 at a time in a single night. At this point the road forked; some I sent west by boats, to Pittsburgh, and others to you in our cars to Philadelphia."

The section of railroad recognized by the National Parks Service excludes a 10-mile stretch between Lancaster City and Columbia, Lancaster County.

That is because Norfolk Southern, which owns that part of the railroad, has declined to participate.

Norfolk Southern says its reasons had nothing to do with the commemorative program's purposes. The firm declined because of its concern that a historic designation might trigger regulatory action that could restrict the company's use of its property, said Rudy Husband, a spokesman for the company.

Other railroad corridors in the state are likely to be recognized for their role in the Underground Railroad, Jackson said. An application is being prepared for a 30-mile section near Pittsburgh.

"There is a huge opportunity here," Harris said. "All the communities along the historic Main Line of Public Works can commemorate, research and document the history of a totally unique heritage experience."