In the present climate of national discord and self-interest, it’s especially important to remember those individuals who risked everything to help others, despite the contempt of the majority.
German Quakers in Germantown were the first to protest the holding of slaves in 1688. What became known as the Underground Railroad existed in Washington’s time—as early as 1786. This movement was run mostly by Quaker and Amish families. The roots of the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania started near Columbia and Bird-in-Hand, Lancaster County. Daniel and Hannah Weirman Gibbon, Quaker leaders of the time, organized a route in Lancaster and Chester Counties beginning in the early 1800s. The Underground Railroad then extended into Berks County across the Chester County line. Thousands of slaves escaped from the South, aided by Berks Countians. Locations included Bethel A.M.E Church, Reading; Pine Forge, Douglass Township; the Parvin House; Ontelaunee Township; and the Kirbyville Hotel, near Fleetwood.
As a forty year resident of Robeson Township, I am especially proud of the Township’s important role in the Underground Railroad. Scarlet’s Mill, Joanna Furnace, Mount Frisby A.M.E. Church and The White Bear Inn served as “stations”, with stops spaced ten miles apart. The fleeing slaves moved from one station to another at night until reaching a safe haven, for many Canada.
According to reports, around 1832 large numbers of fleeing slaves were sent to the home of Elizabeth Pownall Scarlet and her son, who lived in Robeson Township (about five miles west of Birdsboro). Elizabeth was said to be close friends with the Gibbons Family. The dense woods of that area and huts used by charcoal burners (who were employed the nearby forges and furnaces) provided plenty of hiding places. Scarlet’s home, Bon Ridge, is said to have housed more runaway slaves than any other stop in the region. The home still exists on the road leading from White Bear to Gibraltar. This area of the county, called “The Forest”, extended from Flying Hills, south beyond Hopewell Hills.
After Elizabeth’s death, her youngest son, John Pownall Scarlet continued as a “conductor”. Thomas Lewis, married to Ellen B. Scarlet (Elizabeth’s daughter) bought the old Scarlet homestead in 1841 and continued to provide refuge. One of Elizabeth’s other sons was involved in the Underground Railroad near Christiana, PA. In 1857, Joseph Scarlett was involved in The Christiana Tragedy, when the Gap Gang tried to seize escaped slaves in the area. Two people were killed. Thomas Jackson, a Quaker who also lived in “The Forest”, near Joanna Furnace, operated a station prior to 1827. Joanna Furnace was owned and operated by Levi B. Smith, who although not a Quaker, was sympathetic to the Abolitionist cause. He hid fleeing slaves in the wooded furnace areas and in the charcoal huts. Henry Segner, a Joanna Furnace employee, used his knowledge of these woodlands to guide fleeing slaves. His home still stands along Route 10, one mile south of Plow Church.
Another stop, deep in the woodlands of Fingal’s Castle (now an unrecognizable pile of rocks) were the pond fields of Chestnut Hill. It was in this area that fleeing slaves stayed with the Cole Family before moving on to the “Welsh Mountains,” which then led to the Honey Brook area. In White Bear, Thomas Lewis, a Quaker, received many runaways—The White Bear Inn opened in 1815. A number of Hopewell Furnace’s African-American workers lived in “the Forest” nearby. Beginning in 1835, this area served as a safe haven for runaway slaves on The Underground Railroad along Six Penny Creek. By 1856, the black community established the Mount Frisby A.M.E. Church, yet another station on the Underground Railroad in Berks County.
The Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850 made conditions worse, but ultimately turned people against slavery. The Underground Railroad ended with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. By then as many as 75,000 slaves had made it to freedom and thousands of people were involved.
The power of brave people to effect change is boundless.
Article Researched & Written by Gail Corvaia
- Charles L. Blockson, The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, North Carolina: Flame, 1981.
- Ron Devlin, “On the Path of Fleeing Slaves,” Reading Eagle, April 11, 2008.
- John E. Eshelman, “Berks County’s Station on the Underground Railroad,” Historical Review of Berks County, July 1941, pages 107-109.
- Amy L. Geiger, “Underground Railroad in Berks County,” BHC Research Library Vertical File.
- Wayne E. Homan, “The Underground Railroad,” Historical Review of Berks County, Fall 1958, pages 112-116.
- Dennis C. Kurjack, “Hopewell Village National Historic Site, Pennsylvania,” National Park Service Historical Handbook, Series No. 8, Washington, DC, 1954.
- “Robeson Township,” Reading Eagle, July 8, 2002.
- J. Earl Ruthardt, “Tunnels of City Link to History,” Reading Times, 1991.
- “Slavery and the Abolitionist Movement,” History of Robeson Township: Bicentennial Edition, 1976.
- “Underground Railway for Slaves Existed for Years in Berks County,” Reading Eagle, July 8, 1934.
- Maryalice Yakutchik, “The Underground Railroad Has Tracks Through Berks,’ Reading Eagle, February 1993.
- “African-Americans at Hopewell Furnace,” Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, https://www.nps.gov/hofu/learn/historyculture/african-americans.htm.
- Misty Doane, “The Underground Railroad in the 19th Century – Woven With Words,” Reading Branch NAACP #2289, https://www.readingnaacp.org/woven-underground.