It was broad in its reach, encompassing the United States and beyond, and profound in its meaning for a nation entwined in the sale of human life. Yet, that history, by its very secretive nature, is a difficult one to reveal.
Western Pennsylvania was a major thoroughfare for enslaved peoples seeking freedom. They followed routes that were carved by nature in rivers, streams and mountains, traveling mostly on foot, with an occasional ride in hidden compartments of wagons and other forms of transportation. Their numbers are not certain as formal records were not kept and few informal ones remain. Some documents written by those who assisted—sometimes referred to as the "conductors"—in this underground process have survived giving some indication of what those traveling on the railroad endured. Some publications written by, or for, those who managed to survive to secure their freedom, also exist.
Free people of African decent who lived in the area were also affected by the Fugitive slave laws, fleeing their homes as they faced the possibility of becoming enslaved. Still others became the voice of social change and self-empowerment for all Blacks of the era and beyond. The history is unique and boundless.
Explore more than 250 years of African-American history in the Senator John Heinz History Center's exhibition, From Slavery to Freedom, which highlights the history of the anti-slavery movement, the Underground Railroad, and the impact of 19th-centurty activism on the quest for civil rights in Pittsburgh.
One of the many Underground Railroad routes in western Pennsylvania came in through Uniontown in Fayette County, then traveled through Blairsville in Indiana County before continuing into Mercer, Venango and Erie counties.
The Blairsville Area Underground Railroad Project provides tours of the town and cemetery and UGRR-related sites, including the Underground Railroad Museum.
Western Pennsylvania Underground Railroad Sites
Bigham House on Mt. Washington
Mt. Washington PA 15211
Built in 1849, a stop on the Underground Railroad, located within Chatham Village. Thomas James Bigham was an abolitionist lawyer and the editor of The Commercial Journal Anti-Slavery Newspaper. Tradition states that Bigham's black family nurse, Lucinda, faithfully watched from the tower of the Bigham home for fugitive slaves or professional slave hunters. Not a visitor attraction, but available for group tours upon request.
Barbershop and safehouse located on Third Street between Market and Ferry Streets in downtown Pittsburgh. Slaves received a new appearance and a start on their escape to Canada. Historians have compared lists of prominent hotel guests with ads placed by people looking for escaped slaves to confirm the hotel's place in abolitionist history. By day, a business, social and political club for the city's white leaders, by night, a station on the Underground Railroad.
Freedom Road Cemetery
Mercer County Historical Society
119 South Pitt St.
Mercer, PA 16137
This cemetery is located on the right across from the main gate at Stoneboro Fairgrounds. The cemetery is all that remains of Liberia, a fugitive slave town established by the Travis family, free African Americans. For years, this community offered sanctuary to weary travelers. It was also the site of frequent raids by slave catchers. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1849/50, most of the population fled to Canada to become legal free citizens. A few stayed in this area, one an entrepreneur who sold cigars and whiskey to his neighbors.
Gibson House (Mark Twain Manor)
Jamestown Future Foundation
210 Liberty St.
Jamestown, PA 16134
Dr. William Gibson, a prominent Jamestown physician, traveled with Samuel Clemens to Russia. Clemens wrote a book on their travels called Innocents Abroad. The house has been rumored to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. In the basement, there is evidence of a small room used in the Underground Railroad. There is now a restaurant in this building. The Gibson House is on the National Register of Historic Places.
John C. Peck Oyster House
Fourth Street between Wood and Market, downtown Pittsburgh An Underground Railroad station stop.
Plaque Honoring Jane Gray Swisshelm
600 Grant St., downtown Pittsburgh
Located at the Heinz headquarters on Sixth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh. Jane Grey Swisshelm witnessed slavery firsthand and became dedicated to the abolition movement for the Underground Railroad. Her abolitionist weekly, the Pittsburgh Saturday Visitor, first appeared in 1848.
Private homes in Arthurville and Hayti
Lower Hill District, Pittsburgh
Fugitives were secreted in private homes in the predominantly Black section of Arthurville and Hayti and were aided by agents and conductors including the Rev. Lewis Woodson, Samuel Bruce, George Gardner and Bishop Benjamin Tanner, the father of the noted black artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, who is portrayed on a U.S. postage stamp.
St. Matthew's A.M.E. Church in Sewickley
345 Thorn St., Sewickley
Built in 1857 in Sewickley, served as operators on the Underground Railroad. One frequently-used method for delivering food to fugitive slaves in the Pittsburgh area was for conductors to dress as hunters at night with a game bag filled with provisions.
Wylie A.M.E. Church
2200 Wylie Ave., Hill District
July 11, 1850, a group of African-American citizens met at the church and passed resolutions condemning the recently proposed fugitive slave bill. Members of this gathering called for total consolidation of their associations to ensure protection from slave catchers coming into
Pittsburgh seeking fugitives.
Allegheny Institute and Mission Church
Later known as Avery College, then as Avery Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church at Nash and Avery Streets. Charles A. Avery came to Pittsburgh in 1812. His interest in the cotton industry took him on buying trips to the South, and he was drawn to the plight of the Negro slaves. Joining the abolitionist forces, he aided the escape of slaves from the South to Canada in the underground railroad.
The Allegheny Institute and Mission Church, later known as Avery College, built with funds from Mr. Avery's fortune, was a three-story structure heavily influenced by the Greek Revival architecture being used in many eastern cities at that time. The basement, accessible by hidden trap doors, was most probably a "station" (hiding place) in the secret Underground Railroad. A tunnel from the church's basement led to a former canal nearby, permitting fugitive slaves to be dropped by boat from the Allegheny River. A rowboat was used to secretly move them up the canal at night to the tunnel entrance. The first and second floors were used for education, and the third floor for religious purposes.
When Avery died, his fortune was estimated at $800,000. Among the bequests was $20,000 for Oberlin College, the first college in the United States to admit Blacks. Workmen demolished the red brick building of Avery College in Old Allegheny's Dutchtown to make way for the much disputed highway through the East Street Valley. Outside of a few sentimental old-timers, nobody noticed the demolition of the old structure. But to the old-timers, the passing of the building meant the end of a prominent Pittsburgher's dream.
A center of Black social life, located in the Hill District, where musicians such as Art Blakey, Mary Lou Williams, John Coltrane drew a racially mixed, international clientele. Owned by William "Gus" Greenlee, a powerful figure politics and sports in Pittsburgh's African-American community, who owned the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the city's Negro League baseball team.
Demolished hotel, once located at the corner of Water and Smithfield Streets. One of the city's finest hotels and a center of anti-slavery activity. Its staff included 300 free blacks that had daily contact with a flow of wealthy Southern businessmen who came north and east.
Point View Hotel
Family-owned historic bar and restaurant, on Brownsville Road in Brentwood, that once served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Runaway slaves stayed in the basement.