The route taken by fugitives salves, known as the "Underground Railroad", passed through Potter County. The "Stations" on this road, so far as known, were the store of John S. Mann in Coudersport, the farm of Nelson Clark two miles north of Coudersport, the home of Sala Stevens in Clara Township, the home of Rodney Nichols at Millport, the John King homestead at Ceres, Pa. From that point they were guided or assisted across the border into Canada.
The Underground Railroad
By W. W. Thompson
The Underground Railroad is mostly a tradition or a memory, a connected
history of which cannot be written for the lack of records, as none were kept. It went
into disuse when the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln made the slave a free
man. It was never a "Trunk Line" but consisted of numerous trails from the Gulf
of Mexico through various sections of the country with Canada as its grand terminus.
Very few of the colored race from the far south ever succeeded getting through the numerous slave states, but from the Border States south of the Mason-Dixon Line there was a more or less continuous stream dribbling through on the Underground routes.
The Democratic party in the South was for slaveholding and the extension of slavery. In the North it was different. Quite a large portion did not advocate slavery and its extension and would have been glad to have it legally wiped out.
The Underground was a much used line through Hagerstown, Maryland and up the Susquehanna River, branching off at various points thus scattering the runaways-- for if they all had followed the same trail it would have been a simple matter to have blocked it. From Coudersport, which was an important point on the Underground Railroad, the line ran by way of Niles Hill, Nelson Clark's and Steer Brook Road to Millport, Ceres and Angelica, N. Y., then to the Canadian border at different points.
The John S. Mann house in Coudersport and the King farm at Ceres were principal stations with the Nelson Clark, Ephriam Bishop and Joseph Mann as intermediates, with probably others. It has always been hard to get particulars as to persons engaged in the work. For one thing even those engaged in the work only knew of those who were active a few miles either side and never cared to talk about it even after the Civil War was over.
They had been engaged in an unlawful business-- violating the laws of their state and of the United States. Aside from this they were of the best law-abiding citizens. Their views of liberty and the rights of man compelled them to do one thing which the law condemned, but their hearts approved and they were very sensitive about the matter.
Here are some story's of the Underground Railroad.
One evening "before the war" a weary, woe-begone frightened colored man entered the law office of John S. Mann in Coudersport. There was no mistaking the condition of the African. He had gone the limit, and as he dropped into a chair without waiting for an invitation the hopeless look on his face, boots out at the sides, soles and uppers held together by string around the feet, his clothes very scanty, scarcely sufficient to hide his nakedness, fixed his status as a runaway chattel from below the Mason-Dixon Line.
His story was soon told. For over a week he had been dodging the U. S. Marshal and his master. Sometimes he was ahead and sometimes the pursuers overran him. But always, sleeping in the brush, getting victuals here and there at the "way stations" where often they had no safe place to conceal him and they dared not take him in their homes for their reputation was such that their homes would most likely be searched and capture result.
The fact that he was so closely followed made it most difficult for Mr. Mann. Many runaway slaves had already received succor at his hands and many more would be cared for, but this man's physical condition was such that he must be where he could receive attention if necessary. What to do and how to do for the unfortunate was a burning question.
The Mann homestead had a reputation well earned as a place for escaped slaves and, if the Marshal was hot on his trail, his home would undoubtedly be searched. It was also evident the Negro could go no father even if provided with food and some clothes.
At this time, Mr. Mann had in his employ an Irishman named Pat, Pat was Irish to the core and a Democrat who lived down near the river bank a little way back from Main Street with Maggie and a kid or two in a board shanty of three rooms and a hole under the kitchen floor for a cellar.
After thinking the matter over briefly, Mr. Mann summoned Pat and put the proposition up to him that he take the slave in charge. As he (Pat) was a stiff Democrat no one would look for a Negro near his premises. But Pat balked stubbornly and it required all of Mr. Mann's lawyer technique before he finally convinced Pat of the good of the act.
When the officer and the owner of the Negro reached Coudersport they called at Mr. Mann's office and stated their errand plainly. They were welcomed, but not too heartily, and given permission to search the premises. The search was only perfunctory as the officer said, "Our Nigger may have been here but he's not here now!" The next night the Negro was on his way to Canada.
"before the war" a gentleman rode up to the Coudersport Hotel, engaged a room,
and proceeded to stroll around town, finally meeting up with James Smith, a staunch
Democrat. The stranger was a Deputy U. S. Marshal and requested Mr. Smith's advice and
assistance in running down a Negro he had traced into town. Smith told him he would gladly
help the "law," but advised the Marshal to forget it saying that if there were
a Negro in town word went out the minute a stranger was seen and the slave was now
There was never any way of getting a fair estimate of the number of slaves passing through Coudersport. They usually came singly, but sometimes in pairs. W. C. Rennells says he saw four coming up West Street to the Mann homestead and I saw five at one time going into the front gate of the Mann's. A. B. Mann said it was not unusual to find a colored person at the breakfast table. When and how they came was guess work, and they disappeared as they came.
The Mann's had a building at the southwest corner of Third and West Street where Mrs. Mann kept a book store on the ground floor and the second floor was the home of the only printing plant in the county. A small portion of the back room of the printing plant had been partitioned off, lathed and plastered so as not to be discernible.
Years later, M. W. McAlarney, publisher, discovered the "secret" room complete with a straw tick, and a blanket or two. Entrance was made by a loose board from the upper part of the single story shed. Once inside, the shingle board door was securely fastened by dropping a bar into some catches made for the purpose. This board was apparently as well nailed as any other board, but the nails used had been broken off with only the heads showing.
Joseph Mann, a brother of John S. Mann, conducted a large store at Millport, about a dozen miles from Coudersport, in connection with R. L. Nichols. This was quite an important station as the store made a good hiding place but as a rule the Negroes were not allowed to stay any longer than absolutely necessary.
Mrs. Mann was not a Quaker like her husband, but when it came to helping runaway slaves she could out-quake the Quakers. Once a colored woman was brought in by an Abolitionist. The woman had started with several other members of her family but somewhere above Williamsport pursuit was so close they had been compelled to separate, taking different trails. After resting up for a week she was finally dressed in some of Mrs. Mann's clothes and a neighbor lady, using the Mann's horse and buggy, drove her to Buffalo, 100 miles away, stopping with friends of the cause until she landed in Canada.
The next station beyond Millport was the Francis King farm at Ceres, a great rendezvous for the runaway as long as slavery existed. From Ceres one line extended to Angelica, Canandaigua, Geneseo and to Lake Erie. We do not think an escaped Negro was ever returned to slavery from this section and very few times did the officers ever trace them this far. The Abolitionists always helped them and the Democrats just plain ignored them.
The runaway slaves were about the brightest and often the most reckless of the race. Not one in a hundred could read or write, but they could read a map made in the sand by Abolitionists and never made a mistake in reading a sign at a crossroad-- it might be a stone, a stump or a peculiar tree, giving them the proper direction. They never made a mistake in selecting the proper place to stop. They remembered every direction and description given them.
The name, Underground Railroad, according to one story, originated before 1880 at Columbia, Pa., where Negro chasers invariably lost the trail and one of them said his Negro must have escaped by an underground road. It has also been said that Ohio had the most "underground lines."
Return to Potter County Page