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An interesting but little known chapter in Canton’s history relates the story of the "Underground Railroad" which passed through the town and carried escaping slaves from the South to a safe haven in Canada and the free states of the North. As this was neither a railroad nor underground, a word of explanation as to how the name was acquired might be enlightening.
In 1831 a slave named Tice Davids ran away from his owner in Kentucky and headed north. His master gathered a posse and started in pursuit. The would-be captors were drawing near by the time the fugitive reached the Ohio River, so he had to jump in and swim across. The pursuers searched until they found a boat, but by the time they reached the other side, the slave had disappeared, leaving no trace.
After a fruitless search, the master went to Ripley, a nearby town, and asked what became of the slave, he replied: "That nigger must have gone on an underground road, for no one has seen him pass on any road above ground."
The story was repeated many times, and it is said the route of the slaves was thereafter called the "Underground road", which later was changed to the "Underground Railroad."
So much secrecy surrounded the operation of the "underground", necessitated by the illegal aspects involved in helping a man’s property disappear that it is almost impossible to find much authentic information on the subject.
We do know one center of the "underground" was in Columbia, PA., where many Negroes had previously settled. William Wright, grandson of the founder of Columbia was active in assisting runaway slaves and established stations at places easy for them to reach. Many times when the slaves were pursued too closely to reach the next haven provided for them, Wright himself would conceal and disguise them to foil their enraged masters.
From Harrisburg the slaves continued north over a number of different routes. One of these was via Pottsville, Wilkes-Barre, Montrose and so on to New York State.
Another followed the Susquehanna to Williamsport, the slaves often being concealed in the cargoes of canal boats. From the boats the slaves were hustled to a barn of A. Updegraf, located in Black Horse Alley, Williamsport, thence to the Hughes house, then to Trout Run, Wellsboro and on to Elmira N.Y. David and Philip Roderick were the earliest "underground" agents in Williamsport.
The Hughes house, built in 1836 on the Blooming Grove Road, almost in the Williamsport city limits, was an important station on the "underground." This was the home of Robert Hughes, a Mohawk Indian from Canandaigua, N.Y. who married a colored woman about 1840. Hughes and his wife harbored many escaping slaves and helped them on their way north.
The "underground" leading to Canton, Towanda and other Bradford County towns did not come up the valley from Williamsport but followed the old Genesee Road, a trail used about 1800 by pioneers going from southern Pennsylvania to settle the Genesee river valley in New York State. This road or trail came north from Fort Agusta (Sunbury) to Muncy, past the Wolfe Run House of William Ellis, on to Abraham Webster’s near Huntersville, across the mountain at Highland Lake, down Ogdonia Creek to the Loyalsock, up that stream to Elk Creek, up Elk Creek to Lincoln Falls, then to Estella and Eldredsville; over Burnetts ridge to the Schrader Branch, thence down that stream to Towanda Creek and so to Towanda.
The Wolfe Run House mentioned is still standing, and here the Negroes were sometimes concealed in the fireplace. A great many of the people interested in aiding the slaves were Quakers, and many of the old Quaker families in Sullivan County, PA. helped in this work.
Nelson Pardoe lived on the Genesee Road near Lincoln Falls and conducted one of the "underground" stations, sometimes taking one or two slaves to Towanda, concealed in a load of hay.
L. C. Tompkins, grandfather of King, operated a station on his farm near Estella, and Mr. Tompkins remembers his mother telling of seeing an old colored man seated by their fireplace one morning when she was a child. He was eating pancakes and syrup and his delight over the syrup made an indelible impression on her young mind.
The fugitives coming through western Bradford County left the Genesee Trail at Lincoln Falls, coming through the woods near Shunk, on to Wheelerville, down the mountain and into Canton, or down old Williams Hollow road to East Canton and over the hill to Granville, then to Springfield, Wellsburg and New York State.
Samuel and Reuben Battin, two brothers living on the "middle road" between Shunk and Wheelerville, were active agents of the Shunk station. Three slaves stayed at their farms most of one winter; they were very timid and well behaved, but much frightened when strangers approached. One night towards spring all three disappeared, supposedly transported to the next "station."
The station at Granville was located on the Valentine Saxton farm, a shack in the woods not far from the Ross School being the shelter provided for the "underground’s passengers. Evidently Mr. Saxton furnished a refuge, but did little about transportation as Miss Elizabeth Bunyan, a retired school teacher still living in Canton, recalls how her father, Andrew Bunyan, with his team hitched to a wagon ostensibly loaded with hay, under which huddles the slaves, being taken to the next station. There seemed to be little secrecy about this shack, as it was visited by many in the neighborhood, curious to see the fugitives. This station was very active between 1846 and 1854.
There being no Quakers in the vicinity of Canton, the Rev. James Parsons, a circuit riding Baptist minister was selected to operate the station here after his return from New York State in 1846. His log house on Troy Street, which had been the first school in Canton Borough, served as a refuge for the fleeing slaves until it burned in the winter of 1854-55.
His son Horatio B. Parsons, who had assisted his father in transporting the slaves to their next stop, carried on the work after the death of the Rev. James Parsons in the spring of 1854. Mr. Parsons had just moved into his newly built home on Carson Street, now occupied by his great-grand daughter. Here a room was kept ready for the fugitives. They were fed, allowed to rest and then taken to the next station which usually was Troy. Annals in the Parsons’ family indicate the Negroes to have been quiet and well behaved and very grateful for any kindness shown them. So far as is known, none of the slaves ever remained in Canton, though a number remained in Towanda and also in Montrose.
The work of the "underground" in this vicinity covered a period of about 20 years, roughly from 1840 to 1860. Many considered it a contributing cause to the war between the states. The men pledged to aid escaping slaves did so at great risk to themselves and their property, especially after the Dred Scott decision was passed by the Supreme Court.
There was no possibility of monetary gain for these "agents" – only risk and expense, as they were pledged to feed the fugitives and transport them to the next station. This was always a hazardous, night-long journey, as the stations were spaced at the intervals a horse or team could travel between dusk and dawn.
Note by Eleanor P. Keagle;
I did a good deal of careful research to obtain the information some years ago, and all names mentioned are of real people who actually carried out the "underground" in this part of Pennsylvania. Many of those interviewed were descendents of the "agents", like myself and all related facts as they heard them from fathers and grandfathers. Many were Quakers or other religious denominations opposed to slavery and anxious to prevent its spread into northern states. Rev. James Parsons and his son Horatio B. Parsons were my great-grandfather and grandfather respectively.
Eleanor P. Keagle (1896-1971)
The preceding article on the underground railroad tells about one of a large number of stop off points to help the negro escape to freedom. Since the Civil War a small number of black people have made their homes in the Canton area. Some notes left by Mrs. Leon Keagle tell about a few of the early black people in Canton.
Major Dartt found Aunt Lizzie Washington (colored) hoeing corn in a field in Georgia and took her as his army cook after which he sent her north to his family where she lived for a number of years. She saved her money, bought a lot and built a house at the foot of cemetery hill, and lived there until she died. The house was in back of Gus Krise home, across the creek on East Union street.
Charles Davis, a colored barber, made the first ice cream cones ever seen in Canton. He baked them on a little grill and rolled them into cones while soft and hot. As soon as they cooled, they were stiff and crisp like modern cones.
Mrs. Mary Ann Peterson (colored) and Mrs. H. B. Parsons were baptized at the same time. Bone (Bonaparte) Peterson came to cut grandpa Parsons hair when the latter was sick, and told grandma Parsons he "would gladly endure the pain of having all his skin cut off if he could grow a white skin." Boney Peterson's wife, sister of Johnny Robinson, and Robinson's wife who was Susan, lived where Julien Reed now lives. Mrs. Susan Robinson died about 1867. Grandma Parsons helped care for her.
A few black people lived in Canton during the 20th century and the Independent-Sentinel related the heroics of George Lyle in their Anniversary Issue in 1950. A picture accompanying the article shows him in the driver's seat of a water wagon.
George Lyle, the figure on the driver's seat in this photo will be instantly recognized by many, for he was a familiar sight on the streets of Canton. He worked for S. H. Jewell and daily made his rounds delivering coal or ice. George Lyle was simple-hearted man but his friends were legion Children loved him and he loved them. Barefooted, they followed the old sprinkler wagon on hot summer days when he drove the streets to "lay the dust." They ran after the wagon coaxing for pieces of ice. Winter times they "hitched" rides on this bonsleds. His love for children made him risk his life to save a boy endangered by a runaway horse.
On April 27, 1920, a horse drawing a light wagon on Union street became frightened and started to run away. The driver was thrown out and an eight year old boy was left in the wagon. Mr. Lyle saw the horse from the coal yard and dashed into the street to seize the bits. He was jerked from his feet, thrown to the ground and one wheel passed over him causing a severe fracture of the leg. Checked in its mad flight by George's act, the horse was soon stopped. The boy was uninjured but George went to the hospital and lay helpless for many months. He never recovered sufficiently to resume full time work.
The heroic act won for him the Carnegie Hero's Medal which carried with it an award of $26.00 a month. Many people have considered improbable the incredible nobleness of fictional "Uncle Tom" but all who remember George Lyle know he approximated that character.
Other black families who lived in Canton during the first part of the 20th century include the families of Charles Swan, Harry Roberts, the North family with Mary and John Hackett who were raised by the North's, and the Bright family who lived on a farm in the vicinity of Canton.
Perhaps the one I remember best is Charles Swan. He worked as the custodian of the Lewis Building and lived in the last house on the right on West Union street. He supplemented his income by repairing and selling bicycles. My parents bought my first bicycle from him, and I remember well going to the first floor of the Lewis Building to get it. It was painted black, and had small sized wheels for a small boy I don't remember how I got the bicycle home, but I do remember by first ride. I started from my home on Carson street accompanied by an older boy more experienced rider, and went around the curve and onto Minnequa Avenue. The older boy turned the corner and went up Tioga street, but my inexperience made it impossible to turn the corner sharp enough to go up the sidewalk, so I promptly ran into a tree which stood on the corner. Luckily both the rider and the bicycle withstood this first test and both survived to take many more rides together.
Black families who have lived in the Canton area have lived without
any racial problems, partly because they have been small in number, but
mainly because they were all excellent citizens and were respected by the
community. They type of person they were mattered more than the color
of their skin to most people.
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