The Underground Railroad and Canals

The Underground Railroad and Canals

by Elizabeth Bartholow

Many sites along canals are part of the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. During the nineteenth century Pennsylvania had many large canal systems that moved passengers and goods. It was a preferred method of travel. Since these waterways were a faster mode of transportation as opposed to wagons and turnpike roads, it would have been a great means of escape for slaves searching for freedom in the north. Both the Allegheny Portage Railroad as part of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal and Seneca Falls, part of the Erie Canal way National Heritage Corridor were part of the Underground Railroad. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. It meant that any escaped slaves had to be returned to their owners. Even if they made it to a free state, such as Pennsylvania, they were still to be returned.

The best documented Underground Railroad activity on the Allegheny Portage and in western Pennsylvania took place near the canal basin in Hollidaysburg. In mid-August 1855, Jacob Green escaped from his master James Parsons, Jr. in Romney Virginia, today West Virginia. A few months later in October, he returned and helped five other slaves escape who belonged to Mr. Stump, a neighbor of Parsons. Two of the men were later captured and returned to Romney. They revealed that Green would be traveling west through Pennsylvania using the Allegheny Portage Railroad and then the Western Division of the Main Line Canal to Pittsburgh. James Parsons, Jr., his nephew Isaac Parsons and Mr. Stump went to Pennsylvania to capture Green.

On October 20, 1855 Green and Parsons Jr., boarded the same train in Hollidaysburg. Green jumped from the car and Parsons pursued him. Parsons was arrested for attempted kidnapping which was a violation of the law at that time. Because of the Fugitive Slave Act, Parsons could take him back. According to House Document 68 of the Virginia Legislature, this almost caused a Civil War between Pennsylvania and Virginia. Green escaped Parsons’ grasp and was never seen in Hollidaysburg again.

The Erie Canal opened in 1825. The area became populated by people from all different backgrounds and beliefs. It became a hotbed for reform movements, including the Women’s Rights movement in Seneca Falls, New York, a village on the Erie Canal. While the Erie Canal itself was used by African Americans, it also provided a link to get to Canada. It was a huge canal system with various other canals eventually connecting with it, thus offering various escape routes.

Thomas James moved to Seneca Falls in the 1830’s. He opened a barber shop and was involved in real estate. His home stood right next to the railroad and a few blocks from the canal. The 1850 census shows James’ birthplace as unknown. According to Dr. Judith Welman, this is one clue that suggests he was a freedom seeker. It is likely that he knew where he was born but was knowledgeable about politics. Although James was born into slavery, and captured once previously, he avoided associating himself with any birthplace officially until the 1860 census where his birthplace is listed as New York.

These stories are just a snapshot of the vast amount of people who used canals in Pennsylvania to find freedom. Canals towns were safe havens for freedom seekers. The intricate interworking of canal routes proved helpful for many slaves. 

Last updated: January 15, 2018