Indiana County’s Underground Railroad

The mountains and waterways of Indiana County, Pa. are certainly picturesque, but this bucolic region also boasts a heroic history of helping self-emancipated men and women journey to freedom. Like many areas in Pennsylvania, this county celebrates its role in helping slaves and supporting the civil rights movement, offering visitors a glimpse into the roads less traveled by.

The network of secret homes, barns, churches, and businesses that comprised the Underground Railroad weave throughout Pennsylvania towns offering respite and hope in this first free state north of the Mason-Dixon line.

“We were a hotbed of abolitionist behavior here,” says Joy Fairbanks of the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center. “This town was Presbyterian, and people here had a firm belief that no one is to be owned by another human being.”

Housed in the oldest African-American structure in town, a former baptist church, the Center “tells the story of fugitive travel in Indiana County,” says Fairbanks. “This wasn’t the main route to Canada, but it was a river path, and we are directly below Buffalo, N.Y., which was a major crossing point.”

The Center, is often only open from May to October, but Fairbanks says that enthusiastic visitors are always welcome to call and make a special appointment. Summer visitors can watch the town’s annual re-enactment of the Rescue of 1858, in which a band of local citizens saved escapee Richard Newman from arrest by slave hunters. Walking tours and a three-hour driving tour are also mapped out for visitors, and many of the region’s stories are detailed on the Center’s website.

“We don’t have many artifacts because it was a secretive thing,” says Fairbanks, “but we do tell the stories. For instance, it’s surprising how many women helped.”

The Center also has exhibits geared for children to help them understand what it was like to be a young “passenger” on the Underground Railroad.

“We help people connect the dots, from this town, through the country,” says Fairbanks, who adds that visitors often head next to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, or to the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.

“It’s amazing to hear about all the people who were willing to break the law and hide fugitives,” says Fairbanks.

The nearby town of Indiana also hosts its own Underground Railroad tour. According to Coleen Chambers, the director of the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County, slaves found a welcome place to hide in the town’s overgrown cemetery.

Although honored by its past, the county celebrates its present riches as well. Outdoor enthusiasts can take advantage of 64 miles of rails to trails pathways, in addition to abundant fishing and boating. The Amish region of Smicksburg boasts plenty of farm goodness, and visitors can purchase local cheese and wines from the area’s vineyards. “We also have 24 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Jimmy Stewart Museum,” says Penny Perman, executive director of the Indiana County tourist bureau.

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Follow the path to freedom through Pennsylvania by visiting some of the Keystone State’s many Underground Railroad sites. According to the state’s tourism department, “every county in the state boasts at least one Underground Railroad stopover, documenting Pennsylvania’s significant relationship with this poignant period in American history.”

A useful place to start is the state’s Quest for Freedom website, which suggests a number of roadtrips, including can’t miss restaurants and lodging opportunities along the way.

For instance, those visiting Indiana County’s Underground Railroad sites can complement the visit by spending time at the Somerset Historical Center in Somerset County. Located in the heart of the Laurel Highlands along the Allegheny Ridge, the Historical Center is a 150-acre rural history museum north of the town of Somerset, which highlights the Underground Railroad escape system during the years of 1840-1865. In addition to preserving the history of life in rural southwestern Pennsylvania from the times of the region’s first farmers to the present day through exhibits, workshops and educational programs, the Center serves as the headquarters of the Historical & Genealogical Society of Somerset County and its research library. Guided tours are available April through November.

Visitors can finish with a stop at the John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, which boasts the state’s largest collection of original artifacts and documents including the papers and early writings of Martin Delaney who together with Frederick Douglass published the landmark newspaper The North Star. The History Center is home to rare original copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment –part of Thaddeus Stevens’ legacy to this country, as well as Lincoln’s writing desk (complete with scribbles) and his iconic top hat. The Center is also a hub for Civil War 150 activities.

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