Underground Railroad Affiliations In The Merrimack Valley

The Merrimack Valley has always been known for its collection of hidden historic treasures and
secrets that are still alive in the present, etched on walls and inscribed into the floors of preserved architecture and households built lifetimes ago. It’s impossible to go somewhere this side of Boston that doesn’t have its fair share of stories circling back to the 1800s, the bustling industrial era when most of these significant structures in the Merrimack Valley were built.

From the 1830s to the 1850s, New England was swept with the inspiration of building Greek revival type architecture that often included columns, porches and symmetrical faced homes. Inside these houses the designs varied. Many had open floor plans with few hallways, and rooms placed within larger rooms. Several had the added convenience of secluded secret rooms in basements or attics, and some even through crawl spaces in walls and fireplaces. With the nation divided between slavery permitting states and Free states in this time, various families and businesses supporting abolitionism in the north created and used these hideaway places to provide safe lodging for runaway slaves on their escape to Canada.

Many of the Underground Railroad Houses found in the Merrimack Valley were located on a route traveled by escaped slaves outbound of Boston, which often trailed through Lowell and towns east of the Merrimack towards Vermont.

Lowell, as a city, was very torn when it came to joining the abolitionist movements in the early 1800s as the Boott Cotton Mills were important to the city’s income. Without slaves working on plantations in the south to gather the cotton needed for the mills to run, mill owners and investors feared that no one would do the job crucial to the mills’ existence and in turn they would have to shut down. However this “profit before conscience” mindset could not envelope an entire city. Several anti-slavery agitators such as George Thompson and William Lloyd Garrison visited the city to speak their beliefs. The factory girls, in particular, were a big part of the Anti-Slavery Society in Lowell, having over a thousand of their names on one petition in 1835. Organizations such as St. Anne’s Episcopal Church on Kirk Street and the John Street Congregational Church also started to join the Anti-Slavery movement and soon enough by the late 1830s more and more safe houses in Lowell were popping up as part of the Underground Railroad.

 The church house next to St. Anne’s was one significant stop on the Underground Railroad, where Reverend Edson aided slaves in their escape in the early 1830s. The stone house still stands there today, with pillars presenting the front door and two prominent chimneys on either side of the roof. 

The church house next to St. Anne’s was one significant stop on the Underground Railroad, where Reverend Edson aided slaves in their escape in the early 1830s. The stone house still stands there today, with pillars presenting the front door and two prominent chimneys on either side of the roof.

         

Another possible Underground Railroad stop is the well-known Worthen House Café, the oldest tavern in Lowell to date. The brick house still has its original pulley fan system and attic hideaway, as well as secret compartments at the bar used years later during the prohibition.

The Wayside House in Concord, MA, has plenty of reasons to why it is such a famous and preserved building today, being not only home to authors Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Sidney and Nathaniel Hawthorne, but also providing shelter for fugitive slaves in 1847. The house, now part of Minuteman National Historic Park, was interestingly enough not always a safe house for fugitives. One of the very early owners, Samuel Whitney, was a slave owner. Casey, a slave of Whitney’s, escaped the house to join the Revolutionary War, as slavery wouldn’t be abolished in Massachusetts until 1783.

Years later, under the Alcott family’s ownership of the Wayside House in 1846, the residence was opened to all escaped slaves as the “Hillside”. The house secretly lodged several passing slaves, according to Bronson Alcott’s journal, and there they gave the entire Alcott family many reasons to defend the abolitionist cause, and fight for what was right.

Closer and closer to the start of the Civil War, the Underground Railroad picked up much more speed as it multiplied the number of slaves it brought to freedom. Many northern states, cities and towns joined in on the illegal yet ratified act of hiding and delivering slaves to safe places, making it so that many places offered shelter and work for slaves who had nowhere else to go. The Mechanic’s Hall, known now as the Old City Hall on Merrimack Street in Lowell was a prominent staying place for Nathaniel Booth, who ran a barber shop there until he was forced to flee to escape capture from slave catchers in 1850.

There are stories that certain signs such as lit lanterns or hanging quilts were the universal code for a safe houses along the Underground Railroad, and that certain knocks or songs were sung as the language of slave refugees looking for shelter. No matter what the truth is about these stories, it is clear that a large number of families in the Merrimack Valley offered their hospitality to slaves, be it in hidden passageways or in plain sight. This defining history is rooted firmly in the people of the Merrimack Valley, and it makes us the whimsical, welcoming community we are today.

 

Additional Sources:

http://www.lowellmillwomen.com/abolition.html

http://library.uml.edu/clh/Exhibit/AntislaveryTour.pdf

http://www.americanantiquarian.org/proceedings/44806916.pdf

http://www.historicnewengland.org/preservation/your-older-or-historic-home/architectural-style-guide

http://newbostonpost.com/2015/09/02/underground-railroad-history-at-concords-wayside/