Local historians met recently with Dr.
Eric S. Johnson, director of Archaeological Services at the University
of Massachusetts (UMASS) in Amherst to fully research and lay the
groundwork for the discovery of an Underground Railroad in Wilbraham
along Main Street.
By Joan Paris
Turley Publications Correspondent
WILBRAHAM – One
thing is for sure. Wilbraham abolitionists and anti-slavery sympathizers
sheltered runaway slaves in various historic homes along Main Street and
in the Glendale section of town as documented in historic texts.
As an ongoing investigation continues,
through the preliminary archaeological study activities proposed by Eric
S. Johnson, Ph.D., director of Archaeological Services at the University
of Massachusetts (UMAS) in Amherst, town historians continue to discover
the breadth of Wilbraham’s participation in our nation’s Underground
A group of local leaders recently met at
the Old Meeting House on Main Street in town where they continued to
raise still more questions, hoping to apply to Wilbraham’s Community
Preservation Act in January 2015 to fund the full study with a plan that
is both well researched and affordable.
Sanders said, “The question about the
Underground Railroad has been raised many times throughout Wilbraham’s
history and it would be nice to put the question to rest.”
Board trustees from the Atheneum Society
of Wilbraham, Sandy Sanders, Peter Ablondi, Michelle Sampson, Don
Bourcier, and Bill Steele, were joined by Wilbraham & Monson Academy
Head of School, Brian P. Easler, and Janet Moran, Archivist at the
Easler wondered how runaways would have
fared traveling underground without prior knowledge of tunnel strength
or the locations of ingress and egress along the way. “Would they have
actually followed an underground channel, not knowing if tunnel
strengths would hold and without knowing who they would meet in the
Easler explained that his military
training would not have allowed him to do the same. “They would be
looking for a stable sense of security. What measure of security would
“I wonder if instead, runaways were
harbored in below ground holding tanks beneath resident homes for safe
keeping, exiting at will when the ‘coast was clear’,” offered Bourcier.
Johnson explained there is at this time,
inconclusive knowledge about underground activities until all studies at
the old Meeting House, the Old stone Church and the Wilbraham & Monson
Academy along Main Street are completed.
One possibility, Steele suggested, is
that runaways may have been sheltered where there appears to be evidence
of them beneath the Old Meeting House, which was then a Methodist
church- lying in wait while the church was searched and escaping by
tunnel to the Old Stone Church. “Maybe when the church was searched,
they slipped back to the basement of the Old Meeting House,” he
Others agreed saying maybe some portion
of runaway safety was supplied by local sympathizers who simply fed
them, shielded and guided them along their way.
Easler seemed to think that freed and
enslaved runaways alike would have fared better above ground where they
could plan and predict their circumstances.
According to Johnson, Wilbraham’s history has several
documented accounts of residents’ involvement in the anti-slavery
movement and the Underground Railroad in the years before and during the
In “The History of Wilbraham” by Chauncey Peck,
Johnson said, there is a description of the demolition of a house in
1907 and the discovery of two cellars; one the known larger main cellar,
and a second smaller cellar under the pantry that was previously unknown
to the homeowners and made visible only upon removal of the floor (Peck
The discovery, Johnson reported, of the hidden
cellar led to the interpretation that this house was used as a “station”
on the Underground Railroad, and it became known as the “underground
house” (Merrick and Foster 1964, p.278).
During the 1830’s the Rev. and Mrs. Virgin owned the
house, and he said they acknowledged providing aid to runaway slaves.
The location for the Virgin house is described as standing in the
“center village,” adjacent to the historic Village Store; located
approximately 55 m (180 ft) south of the Old Meeting House (Peck 1913,
p. 311, and Gray 2001).
Peck further notes in an early twentieth-century
interview with the Virgins’ son that “Mother” Virgin (presumably the
reverend’s wife) sheltered people in the “Virgin Hollow Hotel,”
intimating a hiding place in the upland ravines east of the town’s
center, in the Glendale section of Wilbraham (Peck 1913, p.312, and
Merrick and Foster 1963).
Several other town residents were known for their
involvement in the Underground Railroad, and participated in concealing
fugitives in “a nearby steep ravine” according to (Merrick and Foster
In later years, according to Sampson and Johnson,
Mrs. Elsie (Pease) Parkness, whose father harbored escapees in the
ravine, recalled bringing food to people hiding there when she was a
child (Merrick and Foster 1964).
The ravine hideout stories are supported by members
of the Atheneum Society of Wilbraham who speak of the old story told to
children about “ghost lights” deep in the hillside.
Presumably, the lights were the campfires of refugees
and the “ghost story” was told to keep children from exploring the
ravines and discovering the hidden camps of runaway slaves.
Johnson said, “Another example of
Wilbraham’s participation in the Anti-Slavery movement is written in
Peck’s history of the town. He briefly describes a “severe struggle”
when two persons seeking freedom and hidden at a Mr. Edward Morris’s
house were somehow discovered by their “masters or hunters” (Peck 1913).
A brawl ensued, and one of the escaping slaves was captured, while the
second successfully fled into the woods.”
Johnson explained that UMAS staff will
gather historic period maps and other published documents concerning
site locations during library research. Historical maps may include the
Massachusetts survey maps of 1794-5 and 1830, the Walling maps of the
1850s and 1860s, Beers and other atlases of the 1870s, the USGS maps of
the 1890s and the 1930s, twentieth century USGS quadrangles, and Sanborn
Insurance maps (as appropriate).
Johnson proposed a couple of methods for
testing for a standing underground structure by using remote sensing
equipment. He said a combination of electrical resistivity and
ground-penetrating radar (GPR) will be used to detect subsurface
Sampson and others said they will be
optimistic either way. If a tunnel cannot be determined, at least we can
document the activities of Wilbraham’s sympathizers in the national
historic database she said.
According to their website, the National
Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program has
identified a regional trek through Western Mass. that includes Amherst,
Charlemont, Florence, Longmeadow, Northfield, Northampton, Southwick,
Springfield and Westfield. The group plans to submit evidence of
Easler outlined a plan to identify and
involve both Academy and Minnechaug U.S. History students in the
archaeological dig for hands-on experience, if the project is
Old Meeting House Plans Historic Research
The Wilbraham 250th Celebration Committee was awarded a grant with
which to publish an updated Wilbraham history book detailing important
events that have taken place since the 1963 edition was published.
Wilbraham resident extraordinaire, Joan Paris, was hired as the book's
editor. She asked the Atheneum Society Trustees to provide the history
of the Society and its operation of the Old Meeting House.
Trustee Michelle Sampson wrote about the Underground Railroad and
the legend that a tunnel connected the Wilbraham & Monson Academy Old
Stone Church basement with the basement of the Old Meeting House was
used for this purpose. It was reliably reported that in 1928, when
Mountain Rd. was being reconstructed, a Town DPW truck fell through the tunnel
and the tunnel was subsequently filled in.
Her research piqued the interest of the Atheneum Board members as
well! The Board has asked the University of Massachusetts Archaeological
Services for a proposal to scientifically recreate the existence of the
tunnel and provide needed scientific proof. Director Dr. Eric Johnson
and his team visited both sites recently and are preparing a proposal
which the Trustees hope to soon present to the Town’s Community
Preservation Committee for FY15 funding.
We will keep you updated on our progress!
Our September Open house was quite interesting. Thanks to John
Jurkowski for sharing his collection of artifacts found using his metal
detector. We were also lucky to have the contents of the Wilbraham time
Many thanks to Trustee Bill Steele for showing us his
antique farm equipment at our August 2014 Open House