Monday, February 12, 2018

Conspiracy in the Underground

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

During the 1850s, Elmira was home to a large criminal conspiracy known as the Underground Railroad. Conspirators used codes and railroad terms to describe their routes and roles and to protect their identities. While today the participants are rightly celebrated as heroes, they were all in violation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Whites found to be working on the Underground Railroad could face a fine of $1,000 (approximately $29,000 in present-day) plus six months’ jail time, while Blacks could find themselves sold as slaves. Despite the risk, they persisted.

John W. Jones, Elmira Station conductor

The point man, or conductor as he was called, for the Elmira Station was John W. Jones. A freedom seeker himself, Jones had arrived in Elmira after fleeing slavery in 1844. He could have continued on to Canada, but decided to stay here and pay forward the help that had been given him. Assisting him were dozens of others who provided escaped slaves with food, clothing, shelter, employment, and forged identity papers. Some of these helpers are now well-known, including Jervis and Olivia Langdon, Ariel and Clarissa Thurston, John Arnot Sr., and Simeon Benjamin, but other’s names have been lost to history in no small part because of the illegal nature of their activities. Even forty years after the abolition of slavery, John Jones refused to share the name of their forger, a young mixed-race man, while corresponding with a historian on the subject.

Freedman's identity papers. Courtesy of

 Jones was, however, perfectly happy to explain how the Elmira Station worked. While sometimes freedom seekers would arrive unannounced, he would usually receive a letter from one of his contacts in Pennsylvania or Maryland, warning him to be on the lookout for some missing horses. Jones’ main contact in Pennsylvania was William Still, a conductor operating out of Philadelphia. Once they had arrived in Elmira, Jones would arrange for the fugitive slaves to be fed and sheltered until they could move on. Sometimes they would move on quickly, but other times they might stay for weeks, taking jobs so they might build up some savings. Once they were ready to move on, Jones would arrange for them to be smuggled to St. Catherines, Ontario in the baggage car of the 4 am train on the Northern Central Railroad. Much like the name of the Elmira Station’s forger, the names of the baggage handlers who helped hide the fugitives are unknown. While the exact numbers are lost to time, Jones and his team helped approximately 800 people escape to freedom.

William Still. Courtesy of Wikipedia

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